Cancer Screening

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2015

Goals of cancer screening

Scientists continue to develop tests that help find specific types of cancer before signs or symptoms appear. This is called screening. The main goals of cancer screening are to:

  • Reduce the number of people who die from the disease, or eliminate deaths from cancer altogether
  • Reduce the number of people who develop the disease

Types of screening tests

Each type of cancer has its own screening tests. Some types of cancer currently do not have an effective screening method. Developing new cancer screening tests is an area of active research.

Breast cancer

  • Mammography. Mammography is a type of x-ray specifically designed to view the breast. The images produced by mammography, called mammograms, can show tumors 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.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is not regularly used to screen for breast cancer. However, it may be helpful for women with a higher risk of breast cancer, those with dense breasts, or when a lump is found during a breast examination.

Learn more about breast cancer screening.

Cervical cancer

  • Pap test. Cells are gently scraped from the outside of a woman's cervix and vagina. A pathologist then identifies any precancerous or cancerous cells.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) testing. Some of the cells collected during the Pap test may be tested for HPV. Infection with HPV is a risk factor for cervical cancer.

Learn more about cervical cancer screening.

Colorectal cancer

  • Colonoscopy. During this procedure, 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.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. The doctor uses a flexible, lighted tube called a sigmoidoscope to check the lower colon for polyps and cancer. The doctor cannot check the upper part of the colon with this test.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT). This test finds blood in the feces, or stool, which can be a sign of polyps or cancer. There are two types FOBT: guaiac and immunochemical.
  • 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.
  • Stool DNA tests. This test analyzes DNA from a person’s stool sample to look for cancer. It uses DNA changes found in polyps and cancers to help a doctor decide whether a colonoscopy is needed.

Learn more about colorectal cancer screening.

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.

Learn more about head and neck cancer screening.

Lung cancer

  • Low-dose helical or spiral computed tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan 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 tumors.

Learn more about lung cancer screening.

Prostate cancer

  • Digital rectal examination (DRE). A DRE 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.

Learn more about prostate cancer screening.

Skin cancer

  • 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. Dermoscopy is usually used to for the early detection of melanoma.

Learn more about skin cancer screening.

Risks of screening

Screening tests can help doctors find a cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage. This may help improve survival. However, cancer screening also has a number of risks. These risks include:

  • Overdiagnosis. 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 overdiagnosis 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.

Screening recommendations

A number of organizations provide guidelines on cancer screening tests. Sometimes these guidelines suggest different things. Recommendations vary on:

  • Which type of cancer people should be screened for
  • Which tests should be used to screen for a particular type of cancer
  • What age screening should begin and end
  • How often screening tests should be done

Talk with 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.

More Information

Understanding Cancer Risk

Understanding Statistics Used to Estimate Risk and Recommend Screening

Prevention and Healthy Living

Collecting Your Family Cancer History