Cancer begins when cells change and multiply without their usual control or order. These abnormally growing cells can then invade normal tissues or organs, or can travel through the blood or lymphatic system, forming new tumors.
Usually, the earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance for a full recovery. Regular checkups and self-exams increase the likelihood of early diagnosis of many cancers. Some cancers can be diagnosed even before symptoms appear.
Skin should be examined during regular checkups for signs of cancer. New growths, sores that do not heal, changes in moles, or any other changes in skin should be noted reported to a doctor immediately.
A dentist and physician should examine your mouth at regular checkups. Self-exams can also detect changes in the color of lips, gums, tongue, or inside cheeks. Scabs, cracks, swelling, bleeding, sores or white patches should also be noted and reported to a dentist. This is extremely important for people who use tobacco (including snuff) or alcohol and for anyone over age 50.
A fecal occult blood test should be conducted yearly after age 50. This test detects hidden blood in the stool, which can be caused by cancer of the colon or rectum. However, blood in the stool can be caused by other conditions, such as stomach ulcers, so more tests should be run to rule out other causes.
Another test for rectal cancer is the digital rectal exam, which is when the doctor feels for bumps or unusual areas in the rectum. This should be done at every regular checkup. A sigmoidoscopy should be done every three to five years after age 50. The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light to look inside the colon and rectum.
Men should do a self-exam to check for lumps or other changes in their testicles. These changes can include swelling, heaviness, unusual tenderness, or pain. The doctor should also examine the testicles at regular checkups. Testicular cancer occurs mainly in young men between the ages of 15-34 and is usually discovered by the men themselves.
Men over age 40 should also have a yearly digital exam of the prostate gland. The doctor feels the prostate through the wall of the rectum and checks for hard or lumpy areas. The blood should also be checked for a consistent rise in prostate-specific antigen (PSA) over a period of time. This should be done annually for men over 50 or those at high risk for prostate cancer.
If breast cancer is detected early, a woman has more treatment options and a better chance of complete recovery. Women should talk to their doctor about mammograms, regular breast exams by a professional, and breast self-exams. Self-exams should be done every month and any noticeable changes must be reported to the doctor. Men who have a history of breast cancer in the family should also check themselves for breast lumps.
Women should also have regular pelvic exams and pap tests to detect the early signs of cervical cancer. During the pelvic exam, a doctor checks the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and rectum for changes.
These exams become especially important once a woman turns eighteen or becomes sexually active.
Other symptoms both men and women must be aware of and report to a doctor include:
Unusual bleeding or discharge
A sore that does not heal
Thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body
Obvious change in a wart or mole
Changes in bowel or bladder habits
Nagging cough or hoarseness
Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
Do not wait to feel pain before talking to a doctor; early cancer does not usually cause pain. You can obtain more information about self-exams, checkup frequency and cancer detection from your personal physician or your local health department.