Cancer Screenings - FAQ

on May 22, 2013

Are there symptoms of cancer?
It depends on the type of cancer. Since cancers affect different areas of the body, they can all present differently. Some very generic symptoms may include a lump or thickening in the breast or testicles; a change in a wart or mole; a skin sore or a persistent sore throat that doesn't heal; a change in bowel or bladder habits; a persistent cough or coughing blood; constant indigestion or trouble swallowing; unusual bleeding or vaginal discharge; and chronic fatigue. However, cancer usually doesn't present any noticeable symptoms, unless it's advanced. The best thing you can do to aid early detection is to conduct regular self-screenings and schedule clinical screenings with your physician.

How do I do self-exams for breast cancer?
Beginning at age 20, women should be conducting self-exams on a monthly basis. This helps to better recognize changes in your breasts that may need to be tested by a physician. Although many women believe self-exams happen in the shower, recent research has shown that lying on your back is a more effective way to examine your breast tissue. While you are on your back, place one arm behind your head. Use the tips of your three middle fingers to feel the breast tissue in the breast on the side of your lifted arm. Move your fingers in small circles, vertically going up and down the breast area. Begin in the middle of your armpit and move all the way across to the breast bone. Switch arms and do the opposite side. As a final measure, look into the mirror with your hands firmly on your hips, looking for any visual changes in your breasts including size, shape, contour, color, dimpling or scaliness.

How do I know if an unusual mark on my skin should be tested for skin cancer?
Moles, freckles and other spots are common developments as we age, however, some may be acting as warning signs for skin cancer. Try to check yourself monthly for skin changes, and get a professional to examine you annually. If you see any new developments, a good way to know if they need further testing is to remember the ABCD rule.

A is for Asymmetry: One half of the spot does not match the other.

B is for Border: Edges of the spot are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.

C is for Color: Color is inconsistent and may include shades of brown, black, pink, red, white or blue.

is for Diameter: The spot is larger than the eraser head of a pencil.

E is for Evolving. There is change in size, shape, or color of the mole.

How often should I be getting colonoscopies?
For those with an average risk of developing colon cancer, testing usually begins when you're 50. If you're over the age of 50 and have not talked to your doctor about colon cancer, you should make an appointment to do so. Colonoscopies are one of many tests that can help identify colon cancer and polyps and should be done every ten years unless your doctor says otherwise. It's important to continue discussions with your doctor, and start them before you turn 50, because there are other tests available. Some that only test for cancer may need to be done annually, while others that test for polyps and cancer may only need to be done once every five to ten years. Your doctor should be able to tell you which test is right for you based on your family history and personal risk.

I have heard debates about when and if to get screened for prostate cancer. Should I be getting prostate screenings?
Recent research has not yet proven the benefits of regular prostate cancer screenings, but Baton Rouge General maintains the American Cancer Society's recommendation that men should begin discussing the pros and cons of screenings with their doctor at age 50. For men in high risk groups, including African American men, these conversations should start at age 45. Prostate cancer screenings continue to be able to identify potential problems among men, and should be seriously considered. Should you decide to be tested, you can schedule your test with either a urologist or your primary care physician. The test is a simple and quick blood test, with or without a digital rectal exam.

When should I start getting mammograms?
Yearly mammograms are recommended for women of average risk ages 40 and older. Less than 2% of women fall into the high risk category, which may indicate that you need to begin mammograms or mammograms with MRIs at an earlier age. Your primary care physician can help you determine if you're at high risk. Risk is determined by a number of factors including the presence of a genetic mutation, previous radiation to the chest, a first-degree relative with breast cancer who has not been genetically tested, etc. To schedule your annual mammogram, call your primary care physician's office and ask for a referral to a mammography center, like the Women's Center at Baton Rouge General.