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Cancer screenings: Learn

The best-known defenses against cancer are maintaining a healthy weight; regular, moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week, not smoking, and early detection and screening. A screening test is helpful to detect cancer before one can see it or feel it so that it can be found in the very early stages and treated more effectively.

Many screening guidelines are based on the general population and do not include at-risk populations. African Americans/Blacks are among groups with higher risks for breast, cervical, colorectal, and prostate cancers. African Americans/Blacks can have more aggressive, faster-growing cancers at younger ages.

The good news is cancers may be easier to treat when caught early. Unfortunately, fear of detecting cancer can interfere with regular screening and getting timely treatment.

Today, in an era of personalized medical care, it's more important than ever to learn about your family's cancer history: who had it, what type of cancer, how old they were, and what happened to them. This information will allow you and your doctor to develop a personalized screening plan.

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Colorectal (colon or rectum) Cancer

Everyone is at risk for colorectal (colon or rectum) cancer. The risk increases with age. But the rates of colorectal cancer are higher among African Americans/Blacks than among any other population group in the United States and the survival rates are lower.

Unhealthy diet (high in meats and animal fats while low in fruits and vegetables) and obesity may increase African Americans’/Blacks' risk of developing and dying from colon cancer. Also, genes and family habits may play a role in risk and survival.

There are many possible reasons for the difference in survival rates between African Americans/Blacks and other populations. African Americans/Blacks are:

  • Less likely to have cancer-preventing and lifesaving regular screening tests for colorectal cancer
  • Less likely to have colorectal polyps detected and removed before they become cancer. Polyps are grapelike growths on the lining of the colon or rectum that may become cancer, but can be removed to prevent cancer from ever developing.
  • More likely to develop polyps deeper in the colon on the right side. These are harder to detect and remove.
  • Less likely to be diagnosed in the early stages when the cancer can be readily treated and even cured.
  • More likely to be diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer when there are fewer treatment options available.

Screening Colonoscopy is One of the Best Ways to Detect Colorectal Cancer. Colorectal cancer diagnosed at early stages can be treated and often cured. In fact, most colorectal cancer cases and deaths are preventable by removing the pre-cancer polyps (grape-like growths) before they become cancer. That is why screening is so important.

Start by talking with your doctor about your family history of colon and rectal cancers and find out when you should get screened and what type of colon cancer screening is best for you. If you have no personal or family history of abnormal results, get screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. Some doctors may recommend to start screening for average-risk African Americans/Blacks at age 45. Several screening options are available, including an exam that looks at the colon and rectum (a visual exam), or a sensitive test that looks for signs of cancer in a person's stool (a stool-based test). All colon cancer screening tests, including stool-based ones, are covered under the Affordable Care Act and may be an option if your doctor orders it.

If your doctor doesn't talk to you about colorectal cancer screening, be sure to ask! It is common to feel a bit nervous about the screening. It may help to practice relaxing and/or take a supportive person, just be sure to keep your appointment. Screening is taking action for your health.

Reference: US Preventive Services Task Force

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Breast Cancer

Women and men are at risk for breast cancer. Breast size doesn’t matter. The risk increases with age. Did you know that smoking can also raise your risk of breast cancer, and many other types of cancer? And e-cigarettes aren’t any better. Vaping may be a gateway to cigarette smoking. And, vaping has not been proven to help people quit smoking. Quitting smoking is the best way to reduce this risk.

African American/Black women are more likely than White women to be diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 45, and less likely to survive. There are many possible reasons for the difference in survival rates. African American/Black women are:

  • Diagnosed with aggressive tumors more often
  • Often diagnosed with more advanced breast cancer
  • Less likely to seek timely health care services
  • Less likely to get breast cancer treated right away

Screening Mammogram is One of the Best Ways to Detect Breast Cancer. A mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breasts, is a screening tool to find breast cancer early. Early detection is a good way to take control of your health. If breast cancer is detected early, you have more treatment options and a greater chance for survival.

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Cervical Cancer

All women are at risk for cervical cancer. But African American/Black women are more likely to die of cervical cancer than any other racial or ethnic group. There are two likely reasons for the difference in survival. African American/Black women are:

  • Less likely to get screened for cervical cancer
  • Often diagnosed with more advanced cervical cancer

HPV Vaccine and Screening are Best Ways to Defend against and Detect Cervical Cancer. The HPV vaccine is important because it protects against cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a very common virus. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. And, sometimes, HPV infections can cause certain cancers, including cervical cancer and other diseases.

The vaccine, however, does not protect against all HPV types— so it will not prevent all cases of cervical cancer related to HPV, or cervical cancers that are not HPV-related.. It is therefore important for women to also continue getting screened for cervical cancer.

With regular gynecological exams, changes in the cervix can often be detected before they become cancerous. Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early: 1) the Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for cell changes on the cervix that might become cancer if they are not treated appropriately, and 2) the HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes. If you get the HPV test along with the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested for HPV at the laboratory.

Early detection is a good way to take control of your health. If cervical cancer is detected early, you have more treatment options and a greater chance for survival.

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Prostate Cancer

African American/Black men have the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world and are more likely to die of the disease than any other group. Researchers still don’t know exactly why this is the case and have suggested that biology and genetics may play a role.

The difference in African American/Black men’s survival rates from prostate cancer may also be the result of:

  • Earlier onset of disease
  • More aggressive or treatment-resistant tumors
  • Lower rates of prostate cancer screening
  • Diagnosed at later stages of the disease when there are fewer treatment options available

Screening May Help to Detect Prostate Cancer. Men should talk about the risks and benefits of these prostate cancer screening tests with their doctor.

Early detection is a good way to take control of your health. If prostate cancer is found early, you have more treatment options and a greater chance for survival. Screening offers a small potential benefit of reducing the chance of death from prostate cancer in some men. However, many men will experience potential harms of screening. Before deciding whether to be screened, men should have an opportunity to discuss the potential benefits and harms of screening with their doctor and to incorporate their values and preferences in the decision.

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When you've learned about cancer risks, you’re ready to ACT.

ACT NOW →

Your emotional health affects your overall health. When you’ve finished the Cancer Screening section, be sure to complete the Emotional Health section.