To fight cancer, get screened – regularly

February 22, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

One in a series of articles about how to reduce the risk of cancer...

The adage “you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken” rings particularly true for cancers, where early detection means more effective treatments and better survival odds.

Mammograms and other recommended screenings can help catch cancer in its earliest, most treatble stages Mammograms and other recommended screenings can help catch cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages

However, too many Americans neglect to get these potentially lifesaving tests. According to a 2012 Frontiers in Oncology study surveying more than 170,000 U.S. participants, aside from colorectal cancer screening, Americans fell short of meeting the screening goals set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2010  initiative.

The researchers also analyzed a subset of participants who are cancer survivors. Although the survivors had better overall adherence to getting screened regularly, even they did not meet Healthy People 2010 goals for cervical cancer screening.

Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D., Arthur and Rosalie Kaplan Chair and Professor of the Department of Medical Oncology and Therapeutics Research, said Americans should do a better job of getting screened.

“It is the easiest way to catch cancer in its earliest stages, when it is the most curable,” Stein said.

For example, the five-year survival rate for patients diagnosed with stage I colorectal cancer is 74%, whereas by stage IV the odds drop to a dismal 6%. This drastic decline is also seen in many other cancers.

With this in mind, it should be a no-brainer for everyone to get screened in accordance to current recommended guidelines. According to the American Cancer Society, this includes:

  • For colorectal cancer, beginning at age 50, either a colonoscopy every 10 years, or a flexible sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema or CT colonography (“virtual colonosocopy”) every 5 years.
  • For breast cancer, women should undergo a clinical breast exam every 3 years starting in their 20s, and a clinical breast exam plus mammogram annually beginning at age 40.
  • For cervical cancer, a Pap test every 3 years for women ages 21 to 65; women age 30 to 65 may also opt for a Pap and HPV test every 5 years instead.
  • For prostate cancer, men should discuss with their physicians about screenings at age 50.

Stein added that context matters in determining screening schedule. For example, those with a family history of cancer should consider getting screened at a younger age and more frequently, and women with particularly dense breasts may need to be screened with MRI instead of a mammogram.


In short, cancer screening is the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound in cure. And in addition to lowering your own risk of cancer, you’ll also contribute to a healthier nation by doing your part toward its Healthy People 2020 goals.

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