Cancer Detection: The Earlier, the Better

January 24, 2009

Periodic check-ups, screening tests and self-exams can make a huge difference in earlier cancer detection.


There's no question that early detection is critically important for treating cancer; treatment is much more likely to be successful - and far less traumatic - when cancer is detected in its earlier stages. "For the best possible treatment outcome, it's important to begin cancer treatment in its initial ("in situ") stage, when the cancer is still confined to a limited area and has not yet spread," explains Dr. Suthida Suwanvecho, a hematologist and oncologist at the Horizon Regional Cancer Center. "But since most types of cancer don't produce any symptoms during their initial stages, patients typically seek medical help only after symptoms develop; by that time the cancer will have progressed significantly."

It's estimated that among the thousands of Thais who die from cancer each year, about 80 percent sought medical help only after they noticed physical symptoms that turned out to be signs of cancer; in other words, the vast majority of cancer deaths happen in cases where people aren't having regular check-ups or recommended cancer screening tests. "Whenever we hear that somebody we know has cancer, we usually feel great sympathy for them," says Dr. Suthida. "However, this should also be a 'wake-up call' for all of us that cancer can strike anyone."


A successful plan to prevent or survive cancer always includes living a healthy lifestyle and having regular periodic medical check-ups and screening tests. "The preventive approach has long been recommended and is obviously a smart choice," explains Dr. Suthida. "You can embrace a cancer prevention lifestyle by making small but important changes such as cutting back on high-fat foods and eating more fruits and vegetables. It's also important to get more exercise, quit smoking, limit alcohol consumption, and follow your doctor's recommended schedule for check-ups and screening tests."

Despite people's best intentions, our plans for having periodic health check-ups often fall victim to busy work schedules, hectic family lives, and the normal human tendency to assume that not feeling sick means our health is fine. That's certainly the case for many of the thousands of people each year who succumb to cancer. "The part of the health check-up that focuses on detecting cancer includes one or more screening tests," says Dr. Suthida. "Screening tests are used to check for the presence of cancer or pre-cancerous growths before any symptoms appear. Undergoing recommended screening tests to check for cancer can prevent having to deal with cancer during its later, more serious stages. Screenings are a way to prevent cancer from becoming serious or fatal. After all, we can only know if there is an early-stage cancer present if we check for it, rather than waiting for symptoms to show."

Though many cancers are asymptomatic (without symptoms) during their earlier stages, screening tests can be highly effective in detecting cancer many years before any symptoms are likely to appear, and in spotting pre-cancerous growths. "Cervical cancer is a good example," Dr. Suthida explains. "When it starts to form as a pre-cancerous growth, it is highly treatable and is easily detected by a Pap smear. The condition can take several years - as long as 10 years - to develop into cervical cancer. When detected in its earlier stages, the treatment outcome is much more likely to be successful, the treatment is easier to tolerate, and there is less of an impact on a patient's quality of life."


While no one can reduce his or her personal cancer risk to zero, the good news is that individuals can control their future health to a significant extent. Making healthier lifestyle choices, learning to recognize potential warning signs, and following our doctors' recommended schedules for check-ups and screenings are a formidable combination for healthier cancer-free living at every stage of life.
Recommended Cancer Screenings and Self-Exams
Test Description Gender Age Frequency
Skin self-examination M/F Beginning at age 18 Monthly
Fecal occult blood test M/F Beginning at age 50 Annually
Colonoscopy M/F Beginning at age 50 Every 5 years or per doctor recommendation
Upper GI X-ray M/F Beginning at age 50 Annually
Breast self-examination Female Beginning at age 20 Monthly
Clinical breast exam Female From age 20 to 40
Age 40 and older
Every 1-3 years
Breast mammography Female Age 40 and older Every 1-2 years or as recommended by your doctor
Pelvic exam and Pap test Female Within 3 years after becoming sexually active but not later than age 21 Annually or as recommended by your doctor
Pap test plus HPV DNA test Female Beginning at age 30 Every 2-3 years
AFP blood test Male For carriers and those previously treated for hepatitis B or C Annually
(every 6 months for high-risk individuals)
Digital rectal exam and
PSA blood test
Male Beginning at age 50 Annually
For more information please contact:

Related Health Blogs