Prevention & Recovery

Cancer screening: 4 cancer tests you need to know about

Cancer screening: 4 cancer tests you need to know about

© Arcurs Image by: © Arcurs Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Cancer screening: 4 cancer tests you need to know about

Cancer is not something anyone wants to think about. The "C" word is a heavy one, and for an increasing number of Canadians, it's something that's hitting ever closer to home. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone these days whose life has not been touched by cancer -- whether they've had a personal encounter themselves or have a family member or friend who has.

As cancer continues to spread within our communities, it's important to do whatever is within your capability to keep it at bay and minimize your risk. The importance of an active lifestyle, healthy eating habits and minimizing exposure to carcinogens is widely acknowledged. But what you may not have considered is calling your doctor to schedule a cancer screening test. Here's what you need to know.

Who should schedule a cancer screening test?
"Screening is for people who feel completely well and have no symptoms," says Dr. Jeff Sisler, an associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Internal Medicine at the University of Manitoba and the director of the Primary Care Oncology Program at CancerCare Manitoba. He stresses the point, explaining that screening is really for people who feel well, not people who have found a lump or who have coughed up blood. "It's very common for people to say, 'I don't need that test. I feel fine,'" he says. "But the whole point is to take the test when you feel well. People get confused about that."

1. Breast cancer screening
According to Dr. Sisler, the general consensus is that women should start screening for breast cancer at age 50 -- and continue to do so every two years -- though he says some provinces recommend beginning at age 40. To find out more about your province's breast cancer screening programs and recommendations, visit the following websites.

British Columbia
New Brunswick
Newfoundland and Labrador
Northwest Territories
Nova Scotia
Prince Edward Island

Page 1 of 3 -- What's the largest risk factor for all cancers? Find out on page 2

Scheduling a breast cancer test
Some provinces perform breast cancer screening tests for women until age 69, others until age 74. Check with your screening program to find out more. If you fall into the appropriate age range, your doctor can order a mammogram (which involves compression of the breast and can cause varying degrees of discomfort) for you, or you can book an appointment yourself by calling your provincial breast cancer screening program's direct toll-free number.

Should you schedule a test? "In general, for all cancers, the largest risk factor is age," says Dr. Sisler. "Number two is family history. People at higher risk are people with close relatives who have had cancer," he says. Medical obesity is another risk factor. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to start screening earlier. First, review your personal risks with your family doctor to determine a course of action.

2. Colon and rectal cancer screening
As with breast cancer, the risk factors for colon and rectal cancers include, but are not limited to, age, family history and medical obesity. It's generally recommended that people begin screening for colon and rectal cancers at age 50 and continue to screen every two years until age 70. But keeping family history in mind, Dr. Sisler says, "if your dad had bowel cancer at age 58, then you might want to do a colonoscopy at an earlier age."

The test can be performed in the privacy of your own home. Called the Fecal Occult Blood Test, the kit is available through doctors’ offices. In many provinces, the kit is mailed out directly to people upon turning 50. In some provinces it's also available at pharmacies, meaning you don't necessarily need to go through your doctor to obtain one. For more information, visit the Health Canada website and, as always, talk to your family doctor -- especially if you have a family history of cancer. "Being aware of your family story around cancer is very important," says Dr. Sisler.

Page 2 of 3 -- Cervical cancer is the 10th most common cancer among Canadian women of all ages. Find out when you should be tested on page 3
3. Cervical cancer screening
According to Health Canada, "cervical cancer is the 10th most common cancer among Canadian women of all ages, and is the third most common among women aged 20 to 49." Health Canada also states that cervical cancer can easily be detected through regular screening, making this an important test to consider. Screening for cervical cancer begins much earlier than screening for other cancers. Cervical cancer screening should begin two to three years after sexual initiation, says Dr. Sisler, and should be done every two years until the age of 70.

A Pap test can easily be booked with your family doctor. "It's an intimate test and can be uncomfortable," says Dr. Sisler. "Many women prefer another woman to do it, so provincial programs strive to make it easier. More females are being trained [to perform Pap tests], so there’s less embarrassment about it," he says. Call your local cervical cancer screening program and visit the Health Canada website for more information.

4. Lung cancer screening
"There's never been any screening for lung cancer that’s been organized by any provincial health system," says Dr. Sisler. "There's good evidence that CT scans in smokers can reduce deaths from lung cancer, but the demand for CT scans, along with the cost, are prohibitive." There's definitely talk of this in the medical community, but Dr. Sisler says that at the moment there is no recommended screening for anyone, including smokers, for lung cancer.

In determining whether you should book a cancer screening test, know that these simple tests could save your life. "The main barrier is that people don't understand that screening is for people who feel well," emphasizes Dr. Sisler. So don't wait until you’re exhibiting symptoms. Call your health-care professional, discuss your personal health story and make an informed choice.

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Natalie Bahadur is the senior editor of and a contributor to


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Cancer screening: 4 cancer tests you need to know about