4 Common Cancer-Screening Myths Busted
May 10, 2018
When it comes to cancer, prevention and early detection are often the best medicine, but confusion and misinformation about screenings continue to run rampant. Even though cancer screening saves lives, it’s not uncommon for people to be somewhat fearful of the screening process, says gastroenterologist and advanced endoscopist Nisa Kubiliun, M.D., Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Co-Director of the UT Southwestern Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program. “I think it’s helpful for patients to know that the risk associated with many screening exams is grossly outweighed by the benefits,” she says. “For example, with colon cancer screening, we can catch polyps so early that we can prevent cancer from ever developing.” Read on to learn more about some of the most important screenings — and find out if you need to schedule one.
MYTH 1: All women should wait until age 45 to have a mammogram.
FACT: Women ages 40 to 49 should have the choice to start regular breast cancer screenings with mammograms. The pros and cons of screening should be discussed with a doctor before making this decision. Sometimes, mammograms can find something that isn’t cancer, which might cause women to get more tests or even treatment they don’t really need. But one third of all years of life lost to breast cancer are from women diagnosed in their 40s, so the benefits of starting screening sooner may outweigh the risks. At age 45, women with no additional risk factors should start getting mammograms every year. However, for women who have a diagnosed BRCA gene mutation or a strong family history of breast cancer, screening (which includes enhanced surveillance with MRI of the breasts) should begin at age 30 or at 10 years younger than the earliest age breast cancer has been diagnosed within the family. It’s important for women to discuss their risk level with a doctor and to know how their breasts normally look and feel so they can report any changes to a health care provider right away.
MYTH 2: Colon cancer screenings are more trouble than they're worth.
FACT: For the general population, colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 50. If individuals have a family history of colon cancer
/conditions-treatments/colorectal-cancer/, certain genetic conditions, or other medical conditions that increase their particular risk, screening may be recommended even before the age of 50. Although colonoscopy remains the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening, there are many options available. The risks and benefits of the differing screening methods vary, so be sure to talk to your doctor about which is right for you. At UT Southwestern, patients have even more noninvasive screening options such as stool-based tests and virtual colonoscopies, making it easier than ever to get tested. “Many patients are reluctant to schedule a screening examination because they have heard the preparation for a colonoscopy is unpleasant. The truth is that the process has become more streamlined and the colonoscopy preparation has been made much more palatable over the past few years,” says Dr. Kubiliun. “I always explain to patients that the inconvenience of the procedure is far outweighed by the significant benefit it offers in preventing colon cancer.”
MYTH 3: With diseases like pancreatic cancer, it's better to just not know if I'm at risk.
FACT: If you have a family history of pancreatic cancer or other potentially related cancers such as breast or melanoma, or if you have cysts on your pancreas, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about possible screening options. For patients with these risk factors, the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program at UT Southwestern is more than just a screening program — it is an ongoing proactive approach to help keep cancer from developing in the first place. The goal for the specialists at UT Southwestern is to identify early signs of progression to cancer and to intervene before cancer develops. The same team of specialists reviews each patient’s results year after year, facilitating prompt identification of changes that may cause concern or require intervention. This level of intensive, long-term monitoring of patients is unique in the region. Additionally, the physicians and scientists at UT Southwestern collaborate with peers at other academic medical centers to improve the early identification of pancreatic cancer through a large, constantly updated database. This research ensures our patients have direct access to the very latest approaches to the diagnosis, management, and treatment of pancreatic disease.
MYTH 4: No one needs to be tested for prostate cancer.
FACT: Prostate cancer screening isn’t recommended for everyone, but beginning at age 50 (or age 45 if you are African-American or have risk factors) men should discuss the risks and benefits of screening with their doctor to determine if it’s right for them. If, after weighing the uncertainties, risks, and benefits, men do opt for the exam, they should have a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test and possibly undergo a digital rectal exam. If no prostate cancer is found as a result of the screening, the time between future screenings will depend on the results of the PSA blood test – either once every year or once every two years. Even after a decision about testing has been made, be sure to keep the topic top of mind and discuss it with your doctor regularly, as new information about the benefits and risks of testing becomes available and your health, values, and preferences change.