Cancer prevention

Leading Medicine Guide Editors
Leading Medicine Guide Editors
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Article overview

When should one go for a preventive check-up?

Cancer screening aims to detect cancers that have no symptoms, in order to treat, at an early stage, any potential cancer condition discovered. Regular cancer check-ups are now common in many Western countries, and in many cases have contributed to falling rates of cancer within populations.

However, when to attend such check-ups, how frequently, and for what cancerous diseases, is a matter that should be discussed with a medical health professional who knows about your current health and your past medical history.

Decisions about cancer screening are always best linked to your personal health in order to:

  • get the best out of available services
  • prioritise essential safeguarding against the most important cancer risks to you
  • avoid raising anxieties by risking false-positive test results
  • avoid any unnecessary over-diagnosing and over-treatment of largely theoretical risks

The cancer risk is normally lower with younger people and increases with age. That is why the American Cancer Society, for example, recommends:

  • a cancer-related check-up every three years for males and females above 20 years of age
  • an annual cancer-related health check-up for males and females over 40 years of age

Which type of doctors offer preventive check-ups?

Preventive cancer-screening check-ups performed by skilled doctors and surgeons are commonly offered by specialist private health clinics. Private health insurance companies also support such measures by increasingly offering cover for regular check-ups, and many employers insist on screening as part of their hiring process. In addition, there are state-run hospitals (such as those managed by the UK’s NHS or Germany’s Federal Ministry of Health), which also run specialist cancer screening clinics in connection with free-of-charge, state-sponsored initiatives.

Which methods are used?

Screening methods are available for many forms of cancer, but you should always talk to your health provider about which methods are best for you. Some of the most common types of cancer screening are:

Breast cancer

Breast cancer screening is typically offered to women of 40 years of age and upwards. The chief method used is X-rays of the breast (mammograms). Those women at increased risk because of their family history and/or other relevant risk factors may well be encouraged to have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan as well.


Cervical cancer

Regular cervical cancer testing often starts with Pap, or smear tests, offered to women of 21 years of age and upwards. Later on, an HPV test for a papilloma virus infection may also be included. These tests can pick up the early signs of abnormal cell growths, which may then need closer specialist investigation.

Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer screening initiatives may start at age 50 for men and women. Various screening methods (to be used at regular intervals) are available, such as:

  • home-test kits to collect stool samples for analysis
  • internal colonoscopy (a flexible tube with a very small camera attached)
  • CT (computerised tomography) scans to create an internal image
  • blood tests

Programmes also exist for regular screening for lung cancer, as well as male prostate cancer. However, for those at average risk from these cancers, the benefits of regular screening are as yet unproven. Talking through these options with your doctor is the best way to decide whether these initiatives will be of benefit to you.

How can one be preventive oneself?

Healthy lifestyle choices can play an important role in cancer prevention, and you should carefully consider the following personal health options:

Don’t smoke

Smoking and tobacco are linked with an increased risk of developing a number of cancers. Public policy across the world also acknowledges the dangers of secondary exposure through inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke, so it’s important to avoid any enclosed areas where smoking is allowed.

Adopt healthy eating practices

While healthy eating can’t prevent cancer, it can help to lower your risk of contracting the disease. Your diet should be light and lean, and should favour fruit, vegetables and other food from plant sources. You should only drink alcohol in moderation, if at all, especially in view of the fact that it too has been linked to cancer.

Stay active and monitor your weight

Your risk of developing a range of cancers is reduced if you can maintain a healthy weight. Furthermore, plenty of vigorous physical activity could help to bring down the risk of developing breast cancer and colon cancer.

Use sun protection

Skin cancer is prevalent in many parts of the world, but with sensible preventive measures, it is also easy to avoid the risks. Use plenty of sunscreen to combat ultraviolet radiation, keep covered up in strong sun, and avoid artificial sunlamps and tanning studios.

Adopt safe behaviours

For instance, practising safe sex will minimise your risk of contracting common sexually transmitted infections, and thus help to rule out cancers developing from such ‘gateway’ conditions.

Stay organised with your medical care

Ideally, you should discuss a preventive cancer check-up strategy with your doctor, which is based on your current health, your own previous medical history and details of your family health history.

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