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Cancer screening saves lives

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Even as medical science strives to find more efficient cures, one simple act, if done with regularity, could have a dent in the growth of cancer deaths – screening. Cancer screenings are medical checks that look for abnormalities in the cells to detect tumours early.

Cancer is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. It has been estimated that the rate of cancer in Asia may jump by almost 60 per cent by 2020, with 7.1 million new cases diagnosed a year. In Singapore, 28 people are diagnosed with cancer and 12 of them succumb to the disease every day. Cancer screening is the first defence for a good chance at survival.

Benefits of early detection
With early detection, prompt treatment can be rolled out, surgeries may be less invasive and chemotherapy drugs can be delivered more effectively to target the tumour.

All too often, cancers grow in silence without causing any major symptoms. It is only when people visit their doctors only once they start experiencing extreme pain, aches or unexplained excessive bleeding. By then, a cancer could have already spread (metastasised), making it much harder to treat, especially if other organs have been affected.

Early screening is especially important for these groups of people:

  • Anyone with a family history of cancer
  • Women over the age of 40 should start yearly mammograms for cancer
  • Anyone over the age of 50 should do a yearly fecal occult blood test for colon cancer
  • Women over 30 should get a Pap smear every two years
  • Early detection of cancers is particularly effective for breast, cervix, colon and rectum, and skin cancers.

Signs of cancer
Not all cancers make themselves known in the early stages, but these are some general warning signs. See a doctor if you:

  • Develop sores that don't heal, bleed persistently
  • Notice a new lump in your breast or other parts of the body
  • Have bloody phlegm, urine, stools or experience bloody discharge from your nipples or vagina
  • Experience a change in your bowel or bladder functions
  • Notice differences in a wart or mole
  • Have constant indigestion or swallowing difficulties
  • Have a cough or hoarseness that does not improve
  • Unintentionally lose excessive weight

Types of Cancer Screening
Generally speaking, adults aged between 20-to 40-years-old should do a thorough cancer screening one every three years. Those aged 40-years and above should do a yearly screening. Early detection is particularly useful in these cancers: breast, skin, cervical and colon cancers.

Breast Cancer
You are never too young to develop breast cancer! All women over 20-years-old should conduct monthly breast self-examinations and add on regular mammograms thereafter.

When to screen:     

  • 40-years-old and under:  
    Monthly breast self-examination
  • 40- to 49-years old:
    Monthly breast self-examination
    Annual mammogram and/or ultrasound

  • 50-years-old and above:
    Monthly breast self-examination
    Mammogram every two years and/or ultrasound

A self-breast examination takes only a few minutes and can be done at your convenience. To do a mammogram, make an appointment through your general practitioner, family physician, gynaecologist or at a polyclinic. A mammogram is similar to an x-ray and takes an image of the breast tissues to detect any abnormalities.

Skin Cancer/Oral Cancer Screening
Keep track of moles and warts and see a doctor if any of them exhibit changes. This can be a change in colour, bleed, ooze, itch, start looking scaly, or are tender or painful. Oral cancers can also be detected early if you keep track of unusually painful or persistent ulcers/sores in the mouth

Colon Cancer Screening
Those with over 50-years-old or anyone with a family history of colon cancer should do an annual faecal occult blood test (FOBT) done annually. You can do the test at your convenience at home by dipping the collection stick into your stools. The sample will be studied for the presence of blood. Thereafter, a doctor may request that you some other tests.

This may include :

  • Colonoscopy: a procedure that inserts a flexible tube up the anus to study the colon
  • Double contrast barium enema X-ray: an x-ray of the colon and rectum

When to screen:

  • 45-years old and above:
    Annual FOBT                                  
    Colonoscopy or Barium enema x-ray every ten years

Cervical, Ovarian & Uterine Cancer Screening
Women over the age of 25-years-old or who are sexually active should do a pap smear every year. A pap smear is the safest and most reliable diagnostic tool for diagnosing cervix cancer. During a pap smear, a doctor inserts a tool to access the vagina and takes a small sample of cells from the cervix. At the same time, the doctor may also do a pelvic exam and study the uterus. Both these tests take only a short period of time and can diagnose early cases of cervical, ovarian and uterine cancer.

Lung Cancer
All smokers should do a chest X-ray every 6 months.

Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a malignant and a benign tumour?

  • Tumors can be benign (it does not spread) or malignant (it can invade healthy cells and form new tumours). A malignant tumour can wreak havoc on a body because the abnormal cells grow and spread (metastasises) uncontrollably, using up the body's resources and killing healthy cells

How does Cancer start?

  • How healthy cells become abnormal and transform into cancerous tumours is not known. However, known risk factors include: smoking, alcohol, radiation, asbestos, certain viruses and obesity.

Is Cancer Hereditary?

  • Some cancers may occur in families, but environmental and lifestyle factors may also play a part. A healthy lifestyle and balance diet may reduce risk factors
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