Early detection is one of the most impactful tools you have for beating cancer. When you catch cancer at an early stage before a tumor spreads to other parts of the body, the survival rate is much higher than for people whose cancer is found after it has spread.
So how do you detect cancer? According to Mary Stapel, MD, a physician for OSF HealthCare, there are two main approaches for detecting cancer early:
- A cancer screening catches a sign of something wrong
- A person notices physical symptoms of cancer
If signs of cancer are detected, your health care team will proceed to diagnosis, which means further testing to confirm whether you have cancer.
A cancer screening may save your life
A cancer screening can find signs of cancer before symptoms show up, increasing the likelihood of catching cancer in the early stages.
“The big benefit is if we catch it early before it progresses to a widespread issue, we can treat it less invasively and have better playbooks to follow,” Dr. Stapel said. “Later-stage cancer is more difficult to treat, and survival rates decrease significantly from early stage to late stage.”
There are several cancer screenings, including mammograms to catch breast cancer and colonoscopies to detect colon and rectal cancers. So, to find out what screenings are right for you and when you may need to get them, you should speak with your primary care physician (PCP).
Your physician can even help you evaluate your family health history to see if you need to start any screenings early.
Look for early signs of cancer
Identifying the early signs of cancer is another effective way to try and detect possible cancer, though Dr. Stapel cautions against overreacting to a new symptom immediately.
“Many of the signs can be benign,” Dr. Stapel said. “One isolated symptom doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but if any symptoms persist beyond a couple weeks, you should definitely take your concern to your PCP.”
Be on the lookout for persistent signs of cancer:
- Unusual lumps, bumps, swelling or skin changes
- Fevers, night sweats, swings from feeling cold to feeling warm
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Constant fatigue
- Change in bladder or bowel movements, or blood in your stool
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hoarseness or trouble swallowing
- Coughing, shortness of breath
- Easy bruising or bleeding
Is a lump cancer?
If you find a lump you didn’t notice before, it isn’t necessarily cancer. Lumps can be benign – or harmless – tumors, which can show up just about anywhere. But you should definitely get it checked out.
“If you have a new lump or bump or swelling or skin change, the safest thing is always to have it examined by a physician,” Dr. Stapel said. “Get a professional to monitor it with you. If it turns out to be benign, at least you’ve achieved that peace of mind.”
Do I have cancer if I have abnormal cells?
Perhaps you just got the results of a urine test, a skin biopsy, a pap smear or some other test, and the report says abnormal cells were found. Just like a tumor found in a CT scan, this may or may not mean cancer.
“It’s something I would not let go of. It doesn’t necessarily always mean cancer, but it needs to be followed up with further testing,” Dr. Stapel said.
Does it show in routine blood work?
Tumor markers are proteins made by tumors, and can indicate the presence of a tumor in your body. Some tumor markers, such as your levels of red blood cells and white blood cells, can show up in a routine blood test called a complete blood count (CBC). By the time that occurs, however, there are likely other symptoms already present, according to Dr. Stapel.
“You can see signs of some cancers, like leukemia and lymphomas, that impact blood count, but a lot of cancers are not going to show signs in a blood test early on,” Dr. Stapel said. “Liver or kidney cancer markers could show up on a complete metabolic panel, but by the time you catch a liver or kidney issue in your bloodwork, it may be a sign the cancer has already spread.”
If early signs of cancer show up in your blood test results, your physician will order further testing.
Can a CT detect cancer?
A computed tomography (CT) scan can detect tumors, which can be indicative of cancer, but Dr. Stapel cautions against using the results of a CT scan to formally diagnose cancer.
“A tumor may look suspicious, but I will always recommend further testing because there are benign tumors that can show up in many different places,” Dr. Stapel said.
Last Updated: February 8, 2023