What is Cancer Screening?
Cancer is an overgrowth of cells which causes a tumor. Tumors can be malignant or benign— malignant tumors are cancerous while benign tumors are not. Cancer is dangerous if left untreated. It happens for many different reasons and in many different areas of the body, and can be detected early through a screening process designed to look for abnormal cells.
A screening test is designed to look for cancer (or pre-cancer) in early stages— before any symptoms develop— when it can be most easily treated. Screening tests are also designed to be minimally invasive, meaning you do not have to undergo a higher risk procedure. Cancer screenings are sometimes routine for everyone, while other times they are performed if you have specific risk factors for types of cancer.
Why is Cancer Screening Important?
Cancer screenings can detect cancer at its earliest stages if you undergo screenings regularly. In its earliest stages when you may not even experience symptoms, cancer is most treatable. Especially in certain kinds of cancer, the chances of effective treatment begin to decline over time. Even in the case of pre-cancer, your gynecologist can regularly track problematic areas so that you can take preventative steps.
How Can My Gynecologist Help?
Although your primary physician can help you prevent many types of cancers, your gynecologist can perform screenings for some cancers that are specific to women. Here are some important screenings to discuss with your gynecologist during an appointment.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women. During your annual exam, your gynecologist can perform a breast exam to feel for any lumps, enlarged lymph nodes, and look for skin changes. Depending on your age and family history, your gynecologist may recommend imaging studies such as mammogram or ultrasound performed on a regular basis. Occasionally, for women at very high risk, your gynecologist may refer you to a cancer genetic counselor to discuss options for genetic testing.
A Pap smear is a test performed to look for abnormal cells on the cervix. HPV testing looks for Human Papillomavirus, a virus associated with nearly all cancers of the cervix. Fortunately, cervical cancer is very rare, and nearly all abnormal Pap smears end up being a false alarm. Based on the results of your Pap smear and HPV testing, your gynecologist may then recommend a procedure called a colposcopy, which allows them to take a closer look at the cervix and any abnormal cells.
Unfortunately, there is no good screening test for ovarian cancer. Although ultrasounds and bloodwork are often cited as screenings for early cancer, these tests often yield a false positive result, and undergoing a procedure based on these results may cause more harm than good. Based on your family history, your gynecologist may refer you to a cancer genetic counselor, as there are certain genetic disorders that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer. Your gynecologist may also recommend testing if you have symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, or changes in appetite.
Several types of cancer, including breast, gynecological, and colorectal, have inherited genetic risk factors. About 5-15% of cancers may be caused by hereditary changes in the genes. If you have multiple family members who have had the same types of cancer, a relative with cancer diagnosis before age 50, or are Ashkenazi Jewish with a family history of breast cancer, genetic screening may be a good idea for you. By testing your DNA, doctors can determine whether you are at higher risk for cancer, leaving you better prepared for early detection and preventative care.
Schedule an Appointment
Cancer screening should be a regular part of your yearly care from your gynecologist or physician. Our expert team can perform accurate screenings and ensure you know what steps to take to prevent and detect different types of cancer. To get started, contact our New York City office by calling or filling out our online form.