Cancer Screening

Cancer screening refers to tests that check for signs of cancer before you have symptoms. Studies show that some screening tests help find cancer early, when it’s easier to treat and possibly cure. But cancer screening tests don’t diagnose cancer. They are a way to find out if you could have cancerous cells or early signs of cancer.

Overview

What is cancer screening?

Cancer screening refers to tests that look for signs of cancer before you have any symptoms. Studies show that some screening tests help find cancer at an early stage, when it’s easier to treat and possibly cure. If your healthcare provider recommends you have a screening test, it’s important to remember their recommendation doesn’t mean they think you have cancer. Most people won’t need cancer screening tests until they’re in their 40s. People at risk of cancer may start cancer screening earlier. If you think you’re at risk for cancer, ask a healthcare provider about cancer screening tests.

Advantages and disadvantages of cancer screening tests

Advantages

  • Cancer screening may find changes in your body that could become cancer.
  • Screening tests find cancer early, before you have symptoms.
  • Screening tests may help find cancer before it can spread.

Disadvantages

Cancer screening tests aren’t always accurate. A test result may show you have cancer when you don’t. This is a false-positive result. On the other hand, your test may show that you don’t have cancer when you do. This is a false-negative result.

Who should be screened for cancer?

Cancer screening guidelines vary based on the type of cancer and your situation. People age 20 and older should ask a healthcare provider if they should have a cancer-related checkup. Healthcare providers use these checkups to determine if people have cancer risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases the chance you’ll have cancer. A family history of cancer is a risk factor.

That said, people generally don’t need regular cancer screening tests until they’re in their 40s. There are exceptions, including:

  • You’ve been diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition.
  • You have a family history of cancer, particularly cancer diagnosed in younger family members.

What are common cancer screening tests?

Cancer screening tests include physical examinations, imaging tests and laboratory tests.

  • Physical examination: A healthcare provider may do this examination during your regular physical. They may examine your body for any changes, such as unusual lumps. They’ll ask questions about your health habits and your family’s health history.
  • Laboratory tests: These tests may include blood tests for cancer, tests to obtain tissue and urine tests. Pap smears are an example of a screening test providers use to obtain tissue for medical pathologists to examine for signs of cancer.
  • Imaging tests: These tests obtain images of areas inside of your body. A mammogram is an example of an imaging test that screens for cancer.
  • Genetic tests for cancer: If someone in your biological family has a type of hereditary cancer, your provider may recommend genetic tests to see if you have an increased risk of developing that cancer.
What about multiple cancer early detection tests?

The Galleri test is a new blood test that can detect more than 50 types of cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved this test for regular use. Talk to a healthcare provider if you’re interested in learning about this test.

Who decides which cancer screening tests are effective?

Just like new cancer treatment, new cancer screening tests go through trial periods. Medical researchers gather evidence to show the tests are accurate and safe.

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Who sets cancer screening guidelines?

In the United States, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force sets cancer screening guidelines. The task force is a volunteer panel of experts. The panel makes recommendations about cancer screening and other ways to prevent some medical conditions.

Breast cancer screening tests

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women and people designated female at birth (DFAB) living in the U.S. It typically affects women and people DFAB age 40 and older. Studies show that mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.

Mammograms may find breast cancer tumors before tumors can cause symptoms or be found during a breast examination. Finding breast cancer early lowers the risk of dying from the condition.

Healthcare providers may recommend the following breast cancer screening tests and timing:

  • Age 40-49: People should have annual mammograms and breast examinations. Healthcare providers also may recommend mammograms every two years.
  • Age 50-74: Your healthcare provider may recommend you have a mammogram every two years.
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  • Healthcare providers may use breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) tests to screen someone who inherited genes that increase their cancer risk.

Prostate cancer screening tests

Men and people designated male at birth (DMAB) age 45 and older should have annual digital rectal examinations. There’s a blood test for prostate cancer. If you’re age 45, ask a healthcare provider if you should have a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test.

Cervical cancer screening tests

According to the National Cancer Institute, the use of Pap smear tests to screen for cervical cancer has resulted in fewer women and people DFAB being diagnosed or dying of the disease.

These are the cervical screening cancer guidelines:

  • Screening should begin at age 21.
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  • People ages 21-29 should have Pap smear tests every three years.
  • People age 30 and older should have Pap smear tests and human papillomavirus (HPV) tests every five years. HPV is a cervical cancer risk factor. Healthcare providers often do HPV tests and Pap smear tests at the same time. People in this age group who don’t have HPV tests should have Pap smear tests every three years.

Lung cancer screening tests

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in America. Medical researchers know some risk factors increase people’s risk of lung cancer. Those people may want lung cancer screening. To date, only one form of lung cancer screening — low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) — appears to decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Colorectal cancer tests

People age 45 and older should have regular colorectal (colon) cancer screening tests. Those may include:

  • Fecal (poop) tests: These tests look for blood and/or genetic mutations in your poop.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: This test lets healthcare providers examine the inside of your lower colon (sigmoid) and colon.
  • Colonoscopy: Healthcare providers use a flexible camera to look inside your colon and rectum.
  • Virtual colonoscopy: This test is a computed tomography (CT) scan that looks for polyps in your colon and rectum.

Healthcare providers may recommend early screening for people at risk of colorectal cancer. Risk factors include:

Ovarian cancer screening tests

There aren’t any screening tests for ovarian cancer. Healthcare providers may order CA-125 assay (blood test) and genetic testing for women and people DFAB with increased risk of ovarian cancer.

What are other common cancer screening tests?

Dentists and healthcare providers often do oral cancer screening during regular checkups. Dermatologists check for skin cancer.

Results and Follow-Up

What does a cancer screening test result mean?

Cancer screening tests look for changes in your body that could be a sign of cancer. The test result isn’t a cancer diagnosis or a sign that you’re cancer free. Sometimes, cancer screening tests show unusual results of changes in your body. In that case, your healthcare provider may recommend additional tests. Just like initial screening tests, simply having an additional test doesn’t mean you have cancer.

When will my healthcare provider let me know about my test results?

Some test results are available within a few days. Other times, it may be a week or so before your healthcare provider receives your test results and can share them with you.

What happens if my screening test shows signs of cancer?

It’s important to remember that a screening test isn’t diagnostic. If your screening test results show signs of cancer, your healthcare provider may do more tests to get more details about the change in your body. Likewise, a screening test that doesn’t find signs of cancer isn’t a clean bill of health. Cancer starts small and may grow very slowly. Ask your healthcare provider when you’ll need another screening test.

Additional Common Questions

Not everyone has regular cancer screening tests. If a healthcare provider recommends tests, you’ll probably want to know more about the process. Below are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What cancer screening tests do you recommend for someone my age?
  • Why do you recommend those tests?
  • Do I need these tests right away?
  • Can you do those tests or should I see a specialist?
  • Are there screening tests that I can do at home?
  • When will I get the results of my screening test and who’ll give me the results?
  • What happens if my results show possible signs of cancer?
  • How often should I get the screening tests?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Cancer screening tests can be an early warning you have cancer. Finding and treating cancer early increases the chance that healthcare providers will be able to cure it. But cancer is scary, and being screened for cancer may make you feel anxious. If you’re considering cancer screening, ask your healthcare provider to explain what cancer screening tests may be helpful. They’ll be happy to explain what each test looks for, how they do specific tests and how they’ll share your test results with you.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/07/2022.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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