Dr Tendai Zuze Matters of Health
There are different types of tests designed to find specific types of cancer before signs and symptoms appear. This is called cancer screening.
The main goals of cancer screening are to reduce the number of people who develop the disease and to reduce the number of people who die from the disease or eliminate deaths from cancer completely.
Each type of cancer has its own screening test though some types of cancer do not have an effective screening method yet. Below are some of the more common cancers and the available screening methods.
Mammography. This is a type of x-ray specifically designed to view the breast. The images produced by mammography can show tumours or irregularities in the breast.
Clinical breast examination. A medical professional looks and feels for any changes in the breast’s size or shape. The examiner also looks for changes in the skin of the breasts and nipples.
Breast self-examination. During this exam, a woman looks and feels for changes in her own breasts. If she notices any changes, she should see a doctor.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) testing. Cells are scraped from the outside of a woman’s cervix and tested for specific strains of a virus called HPV. Some strains of HPV are more strongly linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer.
Pap smear. This test also uses cells from the outside of a woman’s cervix. A pathologist then identifies any precancerous or cancerous cells. This test may be combined with HPV testing.
VIAC. This test is now readily available in Zimbabwe and involves staining the cervix with acid and visually inspecting it. If suspicious cells are found they can be removed at the same time.
Colonoscopy. During colonoscopy, the doctor inserts a flexible, lighted tube called a colonoscope into the rectum. The doctor is able to check the entire colon for polyps or cancer.
Faecal occult blood test (FOB). This test finds blood in the faces, or stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer.
Double contrast barium enema. This is an x-ray examination of the colon and rectum. The barium enema helps the outline of the colon and rectum stand out on the x-rays. Doctors use this test to screen people who cannot have a colonoscopy.
Head and neck cancers:
General health screening examination. The doctor looks in the nose, mouth, and throat for abnormalities and feels for lumps in the neck. Regular dental check-ups are also important to screen for head and neck cancers.
Computed tomography (CT) scan. This creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumours.
Chest X ray. In our setting, plain chest x rays are still important in screening and diagnosing lung cancer.
Digital rectal examination (DRE). This is a test in which the doctor inserts a gloved lubricated finger into a man’s rectum and feels the surface of the prostate for any irregularities.
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. This blood test measures the level of a substance called PSA. PSA is usually found at higher-than-normal levels in men with prostate cancer. However, a high PSA level may also indicate conditions that are not cancerous.
Complete skin examination. A doctor checks the skin for signs of skin cancer.
Skin self-examination. People examine their entire body in a mirror for signs of skin cancer. It often helps to have another person check the scalp and back of the neck.
Dermoscopy. A doctor uses a handheld device to evaluate the size, shape, and pigmentation patterns of skin lesions.
While screening tests can help doctors find a cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage, they are not without risk.Cancer screening risks include:
Over diagnosis. Screening tests may find slow-growing cancers that would not have caused any harm during a person’s lifetime. As a result, some people may receive potentially harmful, painful, stressful, and/or expensive treatments that they did not need.
False positives. Sometimes a screening test will suggest that a person has cancer when they do not.
Increased testing. Doctors may run additional tests that a person may not need because of over diagnosis and false positives. These tests can be physically invasive, costly, and cause unnecessary stress and worry.
False reassurance. Sometimes a screening test will suggest a person does not have cancer when they actually do. As a result, a person may not get the treatment he or she needs.
Talk to your doctor about your personal risk of developing cancer.
You and your doctor can decide on an appropriate screening schedule based on your age and personal and family medical history.