It is important to have regular tests to check for cancer long before you might notice anything wrong. Checking for cancer when you don’t have symptoms is called screening. Screening may involve a physical exam, lab tests, or tests to look at internal organs.
Medicare now covers a number of screening tests for cancer. For more information, call the Medicare toll-free help line at 800-633-4227. Before recommending a screening test, your doctor will ask about your age, past medical problems, family medical problems, general health, and lifestyle. You may want to talk about your concerns or questions with your doctor so that together you can weigh the pros and cons of screening tests.
If you are 50 or older, the following is a list of some screening tests that check for some specific cancers:
Clinical Breast Exam — during a clinical breast exam, a doctor or other health care professional checks the breasts and underarms for lumps or other changes that could be a sign of breast cancer. Although primarily diagnosed in women, breast cancer can happen to men as well.
Mammogram — a special x-ray of the breast that often can find cancers too small for a woman or her doctor to feel. A woman’s risk of breast cancer goes up as she gets older. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says that women in their 40s or older should have a screening mammogram every 1 to 2 years.
Pap Test — the doctor gently scrapes cells from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus or womb) and vagina. The cells are sent to a lab to see if they are abnormal. The National Cancer Institute recommends that all women have a Pap test at least once every 3 years. However, if you are age 65 or older, talk with your doctor about whether you still need to get Pap tests.
Cervical cancer is caused by a virus, called the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can stay in the body for many years.
Pelvic Exam — the doctor checks the uterus, vagina, ovaries, and rectum for any changes in shape or size. During a pelvic exam, an instrument called a speculum is used to widen the vagina so that the upper part of the vagina and the cervix can be seen.
Fecal Occult Blood Test — stool samples are put on special cards and sent to a lab. In the lab, they are looked at under a microscope to see if there is occult (hidden) blood, which can be a sign of cancer. Studies show that if you have a fecal occult blood test every 1 or 2 years between the ages of 50 and 80, you can lower your chance of dying from colorectal cancer. Most cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed in people over age 50.
Sigmoidoscopy — the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light to look inside the lower part of the colon and rectum for growths or abnormal areas. Studies show that sigmoidoscopy, done once every 5 years, can save lives.
Colonoscopy — although like a sigmoidoscopy, this test looks at the whole colon. Some doctors recommend a colonoscopy every 10 years.
Oral Exams — are used by doctors and dentists to detect cancer early by looking at the lips, tongue, mouth, and throat to see if there are any abnormal changes.
Digital Rectal Exam — the doctor puts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate through the wall of the rectum. If the doctor feels hard or lumpy areas, they may be a sign of cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men — especially men over age 65. Researchers are working to find the best screening test for prostate cancer.
Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) Test — measures the amount of PSA in the blood. If the PSA level is higher than average, it may mean that prostate cancer cells are present. PSA levels also may be high in men who have other prostate problems. Researchers are studying ways to make the PSA test more accurate.
Skin Exams — are routine exams of the skin that can help find skin cancer early. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.
If a screening test does show a growth or abnormal change, it doesn’t always mean that you have cancer. You may need more tests. A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether the problem is cancer. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is taken from the abnormal area and looked at under a microscope to check for cancer cells. If tests show you have cancer, you should talk with your doctor and decide how to treat it as soon as possible.
Source: The National Institute on Aging
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