5 Screenings That Can Save Your Life
Apr 07, 2023 | Family Medicine | Share:
Your grandmother may have said, “Don’t go looking for trouble, or it just might find you.” That may be good advice in many situations, but when it comes to your health, that’s exactly what you should do.
In almost all cases, the early detection of cancer and other conditions is the best way to successfully treat these illnesses. In some cases, these screenings can also help prevent cancer.
So while we don’t recommend you go looking for trouble, we do think it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve scheduled your needed screenings so that you can live your healthiest life.
We get it. Everyone has a busy schedule, and it can be difficult to prioritize regular wellness checkups and screenings. But early detection through regular screenings for cancer and other health conditions can literally save your life. Are you up to date on your screenings?
Full Body Skin Check
A full-body skin check is the best way to detect precancerous or cancerous skin cancer spots on your body. Skin cancer is caused by exposure to UV light, either from the sun or tanning beds. Skin cancer is curable through early diagnosis and treatment, but it can be difficult to recognize unless you’re a dermatologist. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 adults will be diagnosed with skin cancer before they turn 70.1
All adults should get annual skin checks at the dermatologist. If you’re outside or exposed to the sun for fifteen minutes a day, you’re at risk of developing skin cancer. Believe it or not, you can be exposed to UV rays even on cloudy days or while driving in your car.
When you arrive for your skin check, you’ll be asked to remove all of your clothing. Your dermatologist will examine your entire body for suspicious spots, including your nail beds and your scalp. But don’t worry – you’ll also be given a drape or sheet, and the doctor will only uncover the part of your body that’s being examined at that time. If your dermatologist sees a concerning spot, they may be able to perform a biopsy that same day.
While the skin check itself isn’t painful, a biopsy may be a little uncomfortable. If your dermatologist has to perform a biopsy, they’ll numb the spot before removing a very small part of your skin. Most of the discomfort you experience is short-lived and comes from the anesthetic. Your doctor will provide you with further instructions for caring for your biopsy and how to obtain the results.
If you have a history of skin cancer, you should increase the frequency of your skin checks and get them twice a year. In addition to your annual skin check at the dermatologist, you should also regularly perform self-checks to monitor any changes to your skin. But don’t hesitate to schedule a skin check if you notice any concerning spots before you’re due for your next one.
Doctors utilize colonoscopies to prevent and detect colon cancer, which is usually asymptomatic in its early stages. Almost all colon cancers begin as polyps; as your doctor performs a colonoscopy, they can not only identify but also remove polyps at the same time. By eliminating the polyps, the doctor is also eliminating the opportunity for cancer to grow.
Because rising numbers of young people are diagnosed with colon cancer each year, most people should begin getting colonoscopies at 45. If you have a family history of colon cancer, you may need to begin your screenings at an earlier age. Colon cancer affects both men and women, but it has a 90% survival rate if it’s detected early.2 Your primary care doctor can help you determine the best time to begin getting colonoscopies.
A colonoscopy is performed under light sedation, which means you won’t feel or remember the procedure. Prior to your colonoscopy, your doctor will give you specific colonoscopy prep instructions to cleanse your colon.
Your doctor will use a long, flexible tube with a camera and light to examine the entire length of your colon. If your doctor identifies any polyps, they will remove them at that time. (It’s nearly impossible to know if you have polyps unless your doctor finds them during a colonoscopy.) The doctor can also take samples for biopsy.
Colonoscopies aren’t painful, but you may experience a little gas or bloating afterward. Most people should get a colonoscopy once every ten years, but your primary care doctor can advise you on when to begin your colonoscopies and how frequently you should get them.
Doctors use mammograms to identify signs of breast cancer or breast abnormalities that cannot be seen or felt without imaging. Mammograms can detect early signs of cancer up to three years before it can be felt in a self-exam. They can also measure breast tissue density, identify masses such as cysts or tumors, and can highlight calcifications. If you’ve had a previous mammogram, it can also detect changes to your breast tissue. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, breast cancers that are discovered early and are localized to the breast have a 5-year survival rate of 99%.3
Doctors recommend that women get their first mammogram between the ages of 35 and 40 to serve as a baseline for future imaging results. Women should get annual mammograms after they turn 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your primary care doctor or gynecologist about the best time to start getting mammograms.
When you arrive for your mammogram, you’ll be asked to remove everything from the waist up before putting on a gown or robe. A mammogram technician will perform your mammogram in a private room, and they’ll help you arrange your breasts between two clear plastic plates. The plates will apply gentle pressure to your breasts to flatten them and provide a clear picture of your breast tissue. While the pressure may feel a little uncomfortable, the imaging process should not be painful. A mammogram captures images of one breast at a time.
All women should perform monthly breast self-exams to check for lumps or changes in their breast tissue. (If you’re not sure how to perform a self-exam, your doctor can explain the best way to do so.) If you notice anything that concerns you during your self-exam, call your doctor to determine whether further testing is needed.
A pap smear is used to detect changes in cervical cells that can lead to cervical cancer. You can’t see or feel early signs of cervical cancer, so screening is the best way to identify cancer early while it’s still highly treatable. When cervical cancer is detected early, before it has spread to other tissues, organs, or lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate is 92%.4
Doctors recommend that women should get their first pap smear at 21 and repeat the screening every 3 years until 65, regardless of sexual activity. However, some women may not need to be tested as frequently or at all, so talk to your gynecologist about your personal testing needs.
A pap smear is performed by your gynecologist at a regular office visit. You don’t need anesthesia, and patients usually report only minor discomfort during this routine test. During the pap smear, your gynecologist will use a swab or cervical brush to collect cells from your cervix. These cells will then be sent off to a lab and examined for any abnormalities. Your doctor will let you know the results of your pap smear within a week or so.
Annual Wellness Visit
Although you may not think of your annual wellness visit as an important screening, your primary care doctor can monitor and screen for several health conditions at this appointment. Your primary care doctor watches for changes in your health over time and can identify other screening tests you may need based on your age and medical history.
Routine labs at your annual wellness visit help your primary care doctor screen for many common conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Your doctor can also monitor for infection, inflammation, thyroid issues, and vitamin deficiencies. In many cases, early identification and treatment of these conditions can prevent poor outcomes and improve your quality of life.
Everyone - even if you’re young and healthy without any chronic medical conditions - should schedule a wellness visit with their primary care doctor every year. Although individual insurance coverage may vary, most health insurance companies will cover this wellness visit at no cost to the patient.
Your primary care doctor not only performs several needed screenings at this appointment, but your doctor also can help you know which other screenings you need and when you need them. They can also coordinate your care by recommending specialists to perform these screenings (such as a dermatologist for your skin check, a gastroenterologist for your colonoscopy, or a gynecologist for your mammogram or pap test) and even schedule an appointment for you.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the screenings and tests you may need, especially as you age. But the good news is, you don’t have to keep up with it all on your own. Your primary care doctor is there for you to help you get the right type of care at the right time. If it’s been a while since you’ve had an annual wellness visit with your primary care doctor, now is a great time to schedule an appointment.
And if you don’t have a primary care doctor, now is the perfect time to find one. Primary care doctors at all five Birmingham MedHelp clinics are accepting new patients. We can help you find a doctor that fits your schedule and meets your needs.
1 Skin Cancer Foundation: Skin Cancer 101. Accessed 20 March 2023. https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/.
2 American Cancer Society: Survival Rates for Colorectal Cancer. Accessed 20 March 2023. Updated 1 March 2023.
3 National Breast cancer Foundation: Early Detection. Accessed 20 March 2023. https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/early-detection-of-breast-cancer/
4 American Cancer Society: Survival Rates for Cervical Cancer. Accessed 20 March 2023. Updated 1 March 2023. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival.html