Healthy Living

Cancer Screening vs. Prevention: What is the Difference?
Cancer screening differs from cancer prevention but both are important in our fight against cancer.

Screening can allow us to detect potential cancer at its earlier, more treatable stages. Cancer is easier to control or cure when it is caught early.

Prevention involves lifestyle choices that can increase or decrease a person's risk of developing cancer. Prevention can also involve medical interventions such as the HPV vaccine that helps to greatly lower the risk of developing cervical cancer.

 Cancer Screening Tests

These tests have shown to lower the number of cancer related deaths by detecting cancer at earlier, more treatable stages.

Screening tests are standard recommendations for persons with no known cancer risk factors. Your healthcare provider can help determine if you require earlier, more frequent or additional screening based on risk factors such as positive family history.

Breast Cancer Screening

Yearly mammograms are recommended at the age of 40.

Clinical breast exams should be performed by a medical professional every 3 years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 and older.

Women should know how their breasts look and feel and promptly report any changes to their healthcare provider. Breast self-exam, (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s.

Colon Screening to Detect Colorectal Cancer and Polyps

Colorectal cancer almost always develops from pre-cancerous, abnormal growths called "polyps".

Beginning at age 50, men and women should follow one of these testing schedules:

• Colonoscopy every 10 years, or

• Every 5 years – flexible sigmoidoscopy or barium enema or CT colonography all which would require a colonoscopy for a positive result.

Tests that can be done yearly are stool tests, which also would require a colonoscopy if positive.

Cervical Cancer Screening

Every 3 years -- from ages 21 to age 29 -- a Pap test is recommended. The Pap test, or Pap smear, is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix so that they can be looked at under a microscope to find cancer and pre-cancer.

From ages 30 to 65 women should have a Pap test along with an HPV, (Human Papilloma Virus) test every 5 years.

Over age 65 women who have had regular cervical screening with normal results do not require further screening. Women with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for 20 years after that diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider can help you determine if you may require additional screening, based on your risk factors, for lung, prostate or endometrial cancer.


To take control of your health and reduce your cancer risk:

Do. . .

• Stay away from tobacco. 
• Get to and stay at a healthy weight. 
• Get moving with regular physical activity. 
• Eat healthy with plenty of fruits and vegetables. 
• Limit how much alcohol you drink (if you drink at all). 
• Protect your skin. 
• Know yourself, your family history, and your risks. 
• Have regular check-ups and cancer screening tests.

Cancer Related Check-ups

For people aged 20 or older having periodic health exams, a cancer-related check-up should include health counseling and, depending on a person’s age and gender, exams for cancers of the thyroid, oral cavity, skin, lymph nodes, testes, and ovaries, as well as for some non-cancerous diseases.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." 


Guidelines for Early Detection and Cancer, American Cancer Society 
Cancer Prevention Screening Tests, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Prevention and Screening, National Cancer Institute 

By Eileen Mulcaire RN, BSN, OCN, Merle Cancer Care Nurse

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