The 7 Best Ways to Catch Cancer Early

By Patricia Hollenback, R.N., BSN, OCN

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be scary. But if your doctor catches it early before it has the chance to grow and spread, it is much easier to treat and cure.

Certain tests are designed to find cancer before it has a chance to spread. Here are those screenings you should consider to help catch it early or, in some cases, prevent it altogether.

Lung Cancer Screening

If you have a history of heavy smoking, currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years, and are between the ages of 55 and 80, you should have an annual lung cancer screening.

A test that can catch lung cancer is a low-dose computed tomography, also referred to as a low-dose CT scan. The scan captures detailed images of your lungs, which can reveal small lesions, an abnormal mass or nodule in your lungs.


In its early stages when it’s most treatable, colorectal cancer typically doesn’t cause symptoms that can alert you to get checked out – explaining why it is often called a “silent killer.” Symptoms of the disease don’t usually develop until it’s more advanced.

You can be proactive about your risk of this type of cancer by having a colonoscopy when you turn 50 and then having another one every 10 years after that. During a colonoscopy, doctors look for cancer or polyps, which can turn into cancer over time. If doctors find any polyps during the procedure, they remove them, potentially stopping cancer before it can start. Should your doctor find polyps during your colonoscopy, you may need to have another one within five to 10 years since there’s a chance you could develop more polyps.

Skin Cancer Screening

Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the U.S. – about one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Skin cancer can be deadly, which is why it’s crucial to catch it before it can spread.

Fortunately, most skin cancers can be detected early with skin exams either by a primary physician or a dermatologist. The best part about a skin cancer screening is that it doesn’t require bloodwork – it consists of your doctor performing a visual inspection of your skin.

If your doctor finds something suspicious during your exam, he or she may perform a biopsy to remove it for testing – a biopsy can determine whether you have skin cancer and, if so, what type it is. Some forms of skin cancer rarely spread, so when a biopsy removes the entire growth, you won’t need further testing.

Prostate Exam

Prostate cancer is the second most common form of cancer in men, falling just behind skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in seven men will develop this form of cancer.

There are a few screening tests that can find prostate cancer early. One is a digital rectal exam (DRE), which is recommended for men age 40 and older. This test allows your doctor to exam your prostate for any abnormalities in texture, shape, or size – these types of changes may indicate the presence of cancer or another prostate-related condition.

At age 50, your doctor may recommend a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test, which tests for a higher than normal level of PSA in the blood that could signal the presence of cancer. The prostate naturally produces PSA, so there’s typically a small amount of this substance in the bloodstream. When there are higher amounts of PSA in the blood, it could mean there’s cancer, inflammation, infection, or enlargement.


After skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the U.S. But screening has increased survival rates and sent the number of deaths into decline.

One screening that catches breast cancer in its earliest stages is the traditional mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast designed to detect tumors and other abnormalities.

Another screening tool is breast tomosynthesis, or 3D mammography, which captures images of breasts from a variety of angles, producing more detailed images than traditional mammograms. Studies have found that 3D mammograms have the potential to significantly increase the rate of breast cancer detection in women with dense breast tissue.

Pap Test and HPV Screening

A woman’s best chance for preventing and detecting cervical cancer is through early detection. Regular pelvic exams with Pap test and HPV testing are the best way to find cervical cancers or cancer risk factors.

A Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, can detect not only cancerous cells, but also other cervical and vaginal abnormalities that may lead to cancer.

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that causes anogenital diseases and is a major risk factor for the development of cervical cancer. There is no treatment for the virus itself, but early detection can make it easier to treat the conditions caused by HPV. You can also ask your doctor about your options for HPV vaccination.


When it comes to skin cancer, breast cancer, testicular cancer and even colorectal cancer, you can play a role in catching it early. Be familiar with your body and bowel habits and get to know what’s normal for you. You can regularly check your skin, breasts, testicles and bowel movements for any unusual changes in between doctors’ visits. If you ever notice any changes in size, shape or color, new lumps or bumps, bleeding or pain, call your doctor who can take a closer look and run some tests.

About the Author

Patricia Hollenback, R.N., BSN, OCN

Patti is a champion for cancer prevention and early detection. As a nurse navigator, her primary goal is to create an open and trusting relationship with her patients in order to guide them through the medical maze of testing, treatment and recovery.

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