Understanding Screening Guidelines

Cancer is smarter than man. It develops whenever it wants to without asking for permission from us. That is a fact. However, medicine has evolved over centuries to the point that we can predict which population is at risk for certain cancers. We have also developed processes that allow for us to check for the presence of cancer. This is the process we call screening or periodically checking for clues that a specific type of cancer may be present within us.

Screening implies that you and your healthcare provider are not keenly aware of the presence of cancer because there are no currently detectable signs or symptoms. In other words, you feel fine, you are healthy, and you are living your life as usual. The fundamental goal of cancer screening is to find a cancer at the earliest possible stage, ideally before symptoms start. At this early stage, cancers are more likely to be curable, so finding cancer early can lead to fewer cancer-related deaths and more survivors. Screening may often be referred to as “watch and wait”. For those who have been found to have inherited genetic mutations, such as a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, which infer a significantly higher risk for certain cancers, screening may be recommended that will reflect the need to identify those cancers. These recommendations may be different than those for the general population. For example, screening may start at earlier ages and/or occur more frequently.

Not all cancers have appropriate screening tests or guidelines. Some guidelines are constantly changing, some may have variable starting ages or recommended frequencies, but most healthcare providers in oncology tend to use the National Comprehensive  Cancer Network’s (NCCN) Guidelines (details can be found at www.nccn.org) when making recommendations for their patients.

Our goal with screening is not to cause anxiety in your life, but rather assure you that we are watching you very closely for the slightest changes in your body on a specific schedule that may be tailored to your cancer risk. We can’t predict if or when cancer may develop within your body, but we routinely monitor for the slightest abnormalities to increase the chances of finding cancer at an early stage. In addition to screening, your healthcare provider may also talk to you about options for preventive surgeries. The decision between average population screening, high risk screening and/or risk reduction options should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Everyone has a risk of developing some type of cancer in their lifetime. With proper screening, most cancers, when detected at an early stage, will be curable. This is your opportunity to be an active participant in managing your health.

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