Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;78(12):1376

See related article on cancer screening.

What is a screening test?

A screening test is for someone who has no signs of being sick. The test checks to see if you might have a certain disease, such as cancer. A disease can be treated better the earlier it is found.

What are some common screening tests for cancer?

Pap smears are used to test for cervical cancer. Mammograms test for breast cancer. Prostate-specific antigen tests check for prostate cancer. Colon cancer can be found using either a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy test. There aren't any good screening tests for lung cancer or ovarian cancer.

Why should I stop getting screened?

Sometimes tests do more harm than good. Screening tests get more risky and more uncomfortable as you get older. For example, in older patients, there is a chance the bowel could tear during a colonoscopy test. The tests can also be expensive and inconvenient.

Screening tests sometimes give a “false-positive” result. This is when a test result says that you have a disease when you really don't. False-positive results can make you worry when you don't need to. They can also lead to more tests that you don't need and that may be riskier than the first test. You should get screened when:

  • The risk of disease is high

  • You would want to be treated if the test found the disease

  • Early treatment would probably make you better

How do I know if I should stop getting screened?

Talk to your doctor about why you should or shouldn't get screened for cancer. You should discuss your medical history, overall health, and personal choices before you make a decision.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Cancer Society

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