The Cancer Tests You Should Think Twice About

When assessing the necessity of a particular cancer screening, one has to weigh the risks and benefits. For those who are healthy with no symptoms or risk factors for a particular cancer, more testing is not always better. Learn what tests to approach with caution and what tests you absolutely need to take.

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Cancer screening in otherwise healthy individuals can be difficult. More screening isn’t always better. Not only is it difficult to find some forms of tumors, the potential for false-positives is high for some testing procedures. This can lead to further unnecessary testing, unnecessary operations and costly drugs; furthermore, unnecessary emotional distress is also a factor. When assessing the necessity of a particular cancer screening, one has to weigh the risks and benefits.

As a result, Consumer Reports generated a list of eight cancer screening tests that asymptomatic people with no risk factors should avoid. They also included three cancer screening tests that you should get because the benefits of those tests far outweigh the risks.

These eight screening tests include:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Oral cancer
  • Skin cancer

Remember these Consumer Reports recommendations are for those who are healthy with no symptoms or risk factors for that particular cancer. If you are experiencing concerning symptoms or have a family history of a particular cancer, talk with your physician about screening.

Bladder, Lung and Pancreatic Cancer Screenings

Both Consumer Reports and the Dr. Oz Show agree that these three screening tests are best avoided unless you have symptoms or risk factors for any of these three cancers.

Symptoms of bladder cancer include intermittent bloody urine, pelvic pain or flank pain. Some patients also experience periods of incontinence or urinary urgency, and on the flip side, some patients may need to strain in order to urinate or experience a decreased force of urine stream. Risk factors for bladder cancer include smoking and previous bladder infection with Schistosoma hematobium and previous use of cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy agent.

Lung cancer symptoms include coughing up blood (or hemoptysis, which is present in 25 to 50% of lung cancer patients), especially in long-term, older smokers. However, the most common cause of hemoptysis is bronchitis. Many also may experience chest pain or shortness of breath. The two main risk factors to worry about with lung cancer is smoking and previous radiation therapy to the chest.

The most common complaints in those suffering from pancreatic cancer are abdominal pain, yellowing skin and weight loss. However, pancreatic cancer is often so deadly and untreatable that early detection seldom improves overall survival. Some experts do agree that screening high-risk patients may provide some benefit. High-risk persons include those who have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer and a history of chronic pancreatitis.

Ovarian, Prostate and Testicular Cancer Screenings

While Consumer Reports believes that screening tests for these three cancers should be avoided, the Dr. Oz Show believes they could be effective when used correctly.

Ovarian cancer is considered a “silent killer” because it’s often not diagnosed until it has already reached an advanced stage. However, because it is considered a rare cancer, regularly screening healthy women with no symptoms would lead to costly, distressing, unnecessary and invasive tests in order to rule out false-positive results. Learn more about the case for and against ovarian cancer screenings.

Prostate cancer is another deadly cancer, and screening for prostate cancer is a hot topic among physicians. One controversial screening test that is growing in popularity is the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. The Dr. Oz Show recommends men at least know their baseline PSA number around age 50, so they can track any changes in their PSA number as they age. Although 1 in 6 men will develop prostate cancer, keep in mind that African-American men and men who have a family history of prostate cancer are at higher risk. Learn more about preventing prostate cancer.

Testicular cancer, unlike ovarian or prostate cancer, is one of the most curable cancers, with a very high survival rate. Hence, Consumer Reports believes early screening makes little difference in cancer survival because most testicular cancers found without regular screening are curable. Although the Dr. Oz Show agrees in part with Consumer Reports’ reasoning, the testicular self-exam is a simple and easy approach to cancer screening that allows men to take their health into their own hands. Remember, testicular cancer most commonly occurs in younger men, with 50% of all diagnoses occurring between ages 15 and 35.

Oral and Skin Cancer Screenings

For these two cancers, Consumer Reports and the Dr. Oz Show disagree on the importance of screening. Consumer Reports considers both of these tests to be a waste of your time and your doctor’s time. However, the Dr. Oz Show recommends everyone get screened because they both are quick, noninvasive and low-risk tests that can be done at a routine doctor’s visit.

Oral cancers can be found early during a visual exam or with an examination that uses staining or a special fluorescent light to look for changes on the inside of your mouth and throat. Many oral cancer experts believe screenings can improve diagnosis and survival rates, especially if you have risk factors for oral cancer. They include smoking, regular alcohol use, HPV infection, high UV light exposure and having a family history of oral cancer. Your dentist can perform these tests.

It’s also very cheap and easy to screen for skin cancer. It mainly entails becoming aware of one’s skin moles and markings and keeping track of skin changes. Use this chart, provided by the American Academy of Dermatology, to perform a self-exam and track your moles. You should be especially aware of skin changes if you have a history of excessive sun exposure, frequent sunburns (especially during childhood), multiple moles from birth, or a personal history of melanoma or other skin cancers. Those with fair skin, light hair and a family history of melanoma should also be more vigilant.

The Three Tests You Should Receive

Consumer Reports named three essential cancer screening tests that have long proven to be life-saving and essential for your health. They include screening for cervical, breast and colon cancers.

Cervical cancer screening involves a regular Pap smear, done at a gynecologist’s office  at least every three years. This should be done regularly for women between the ages of 21 and 65. Because most cases of cervical cancer come from a previous HPV infection, an HPV test can also determine whether or not a high-risk HPV infection is present. This is recommended at least once for women over age 30. However, women over 30 can get a combination Pap and HPV test every five years in lieu of a pap screening every three years, provided there is no prior history of cervical lesions or positive HPV infections. Learn more about HPV testing.

Breast cancer screening is also very important for women’s health. Consumer Reports recommends women aged 50 to 75 should receive mammograms every two years. However, the American Cancer Society recommends that regular breast cancer screening should start after age 40. You should talk with your doctor about regular cancer screenings before age 50 if you have a personal or strong family history of breast cancer. Learn more about breast cancer and ways you can reduce your risk for breast cancer.

Colon cancer is another common and deadly killer if not caught early. Both Consumer Reports and the Dr. Oz Show suggest initiating regular screening with a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy at age 50, then following up as recommended by your physician. Other screening options include regular stool blood tests. Talk with your doctor about what is appropriate for you, considering your family history of colon cancer and risk factors. They include having a history of inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and having a diet high in red or processed meats. Watch Dr. Oz prepare for his colonoscopy.