What your doctor wants you to know about cancer screenings


by Shrawan Gaitonde, MD

Aug 7, 2018

Most everyone has heard of cancer screenings, but it seems not everyone knows how they work. As a surgical oncologist, this news was startling. It’s important for not only my patients, but everyone to understand cancer screenings—from its early detection benefits to next steps in treatment.

Here’s what you should know about cancer screenings and why they are so important to your health.

What cancer screenings can and can’t do

Cancer screening tests are designed to detect cancer at stages when treatment will be the most effective and potentially even curative. Screening tests are directed toward people who have no symptoms and are used in a preventive fashion.

Depending on the cancer being screened, some tests have been shown to decrease the deaths related to that cancer. Other types of cancers may have tests developed, but if they have not been proven to increase survival, these screening tests are not universally recommended.

Therefore, cancer screenings can detect some cancers, but not all cancers.

As a general rule, screening tests are just that—tests. They do not treat cancers. The information received from these tests can help determine the next steps in treatment. But while some screening tests can include interventions that can decrease the incidence of cancer, or even prevent them (like polyp removals during colonoscopy), the function of screening tests is not to prevent cancer. It is merely to diagnose it at the earliest point possible.

What to expect at a cancer screening

The screening process for each differs, depending on the test being performed. Most screening tests do not require any preparation, other than showing up at the appropriate and recommended time—for example, mammograms and pap smears. Other tests might require overnight fasting for specific scans, or even preparations to be taken the day before, such as a colonoscopy.

After the test is complete, patients can usually resume normal activities. Results can take a few days, depending on whether biopsies were performed, or if additional tests are necessary.

One of the biggest misconceptions about cancer screenings is that if someone eats healthy, exercises regularly and goes to their annual checkups, they do not need screening. The sentiment that “I shouldn’t have cancer because I’ve done all that I was supposed to,” is proven wrong all too often.

The second is that people will often say, “If I have cancer, I’d rather not know.” While I am always a strong advocate for patient-centered decision making, and patients are welcome to defer recommended therapies in order to stay consistent with their own beliefs, people often surprise themselves about their decisions when they are faced with reality.

Screenings provide information. That information is just another tool in your tool belt that you can use to make further treatment, or non-treatment, decisions. It’s never a bad idea to have more information.

Time for a cancer screening?

Start by visiting the CDC’s website to see the recommended screenings for the general population, then be sure to talk with your doctor ahead of time and develop a plan.

Remember, the screening guidelines are recommendations—not mandates. It is important to note that these guidelines can be altered to suit each patient better. Therefore, it is essential to communicate with your doctor about new family history and to be honest about your risk factors.

Open and honest communication with your doctor, as well as developing a game plan, are the two best first steps to take in the battle to beat cancer.

Cancer screening is the best way to find these diseases at a point when they can still be treated or cured. So, take this doctor’s advice and don’t wait until a problem arises—get screened early so that you can live a long and healthy life.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor or learn more about your cancer screening options here.

About the Author

Dr. Gaitonde is a surgical oncologist at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano and McKinney. When not working, he spends time in the outdoors playing golf and tennis, and is an avid hunter and fisherman. In addition to being published in multiple peer reviewed journals, he has authored several book chapters on pancreatic cancer, intestinal cancers, and abdominal sepsis.

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