Cancer screening is important because it can detect cancer early—when treatment is more likely to succeed. Fortunately, many tests can catch cancer in the early stages. While your doctor will likely recommend which screening tests you should undergo based on your age and level of risk, you can also request cancer screening for yourself.
So, we’ve put together this guide of common tests for cancer to help you understand the various screening tests and which might be right for you.
Medical Tests to Detect Cancer
A colonoscopy is a standard cancer screening test used to detect colorectal cancer. This test is typically recommended for people over 50, as this is the age group at which colorectal cancer rates are highest. A colonoscopy involves inserting a camera through the rectum to view the inside of the colon and rectum.
A sigmoidoscopy is also a screening test to help find early-stage colorectal cancer. The test also uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end, like a colonoscopy. While the colonoscopy examines the entire colon, a sigmoidoscopy only covers the lower part of the colon.
Prostate-Specific (PSA) Test
This test is typically recommended for men over 50, as this is the age group at which prostate cancer rates are highest. A PSA test involves taking a blood sample to measure prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels in the blood. The test is often combined with a digital rectal exam.
This test is typically recommended for women over 40, as this is the age group at which breast cancer rates are highest. A mammogram involves taking an X-ray of the breasts to detect any abnormalities.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Testing and Pap Test
HPV testing is often combined with a pap test. The tests can be done separately but are usually performed together. During these tests, a metal or plastic speculum is inserted in the vagina to separate the vaginal walls, which allows the doctor to use a tiny spatula or brush to gently collect cells from the cervix.
Low-dose Computed Tomography (CT)
This test remains the only screening test for lung cancer and is recommended for adults at high risk with no symptoms. During the CT, you will lie on a table as an X-ray machine uses low doses of radiation to capture detailed images of the lungs.
Blood tests may be used in cancer screening to help guide the diagnosis. The following tests give doctors a general idea of how the organ is functioning and whether it may be affected by cancer:
Tumor marker tests
Circulating tumor cell tests
Blood protein testing
Complete blood count (CBC)
Stool-based tests examine the feces for indicators of pre-cancers or cancers. The following tests are commonly used for colorectal screening:
Fecal Occult Blood test (FOBT)
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
Stool DNA test
Be sure to discuss your family medical history and any abnormal signs or symptoms with your primary care physician and ask if any of these common tests for cancer are right for you. Being proactive and having recommended screenings and regular healthcare exams is the best way to catch cancer early and protect your precious health.
Dr. Jack Steel
Dr. Jack Steel is a contributor to Rachel K. Belkin.