Cancer Detection Tests for Elders


Cancer strikes people of all ages, but as people age, they are more likely to get cancer. The good news is that cancer death rates are going down.

Although there are a plethora of cancer screening tests available, research conducted recently says that certain segments of the older adult population – in particular, those with limited life expectancy, poor health status and concommitant health conditions – would likely not benefit from screening, according to lead researcher Keith Bellizzi, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut in Storrs who spearheaded the study conducted by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

She says screening decisions should be individualized based on an elderly person's life expectancy, health status, an informed discussion with the patient about the potential harms and benefits, and patient values and preferences.

If after discussing your parent's health status with a doctor, if it is determined that the elder should be screened for certain cancers, here is a list of the most common screenings and how they are conducted, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI):

Breast cancer screening

Clinical breast exam: During a clinical breast exam, the healthcare professional checks the breasts and underarms for lumps or other changes that could be a sign of breast cancer. Although primarily diagnosed in women, breast cancer can happen to men as well.

Mammogram: This special breast x-ray can often find cancers too small for a woman or her doctor to feel.

Cervical cancer screening

Pap test: the doctor gently scrapes cells from the cervix (the lower part of the uterus or womb) and vagina. The cells are sent to a lab to see if they are abnormal. NCI recommends that women age 65 or older talk with their doctor about whether they still need to get Pap tests.

Pelvic exam: The doctor checks the uterus, vagina, ovaries, and rectum for any changes in shape or size. During a pelvic exam, an instrument called a speculum is used to widen the vagina so that the upper part of the vagina and the cervix can be seen.

Ovarian cancer screening

Unfortunately, there is no standard screening test to detect ovarian cancer, according to NCI. The Pap test does not screen for ovarian cancer. If elderly women are having abnormal symptoms, such as post-menopausal vaginal bleeding, pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area, bloating, or feeling full extremely quickly while eating, they should ask their doctor if they should be tested. Screenings such a rectovaginal pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound, or a CA-125 blood tests can sometimes help find or rule out ovarian cancer.

Colorectal cancer screening

Fecal occult blood test: Stool samples are put on special cards and sent to a lab, where they are looked at under a microscope to see if there is occult (hidden) blood, which can be a sign of cancer.

Sigmoidoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light to look inside the lower part of the colon and rectum for growths or abnormal areas. Studies show that sigmoidoscopy, done once every 5 years, can save lives.

Colonoscopy: Although like a sigmoidoscopy, this test looks at the whole colon. Some doctors recommend a colonoscopy every 10 years.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men -- especially men over age 65.

Digital Rectal Exam: The doctor puts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels the prostate through the wall of the rectum. If the doctor feels hard or lumpy areas, they may be a sign of cancer.

Prostate specific antigen (PSA) test: This screening measures the amount of PSA in the blood. If the PSA level is higher than average, it may mean that prostate cancer cells are present. PSA levels also may be high in men who have other prostate problems. Researchers are studying ways to make the PSA test more accurate.

Mouth and throat cancers

Oral exams: These tests are used by doctors and dentists to detect cancer early by looking at the lips, tongue, mouth, and throat to see if there are any abnormal changes.

Skin cancer

Skin exams: Screenings are routine exams of the skin that can help find skin cancer early. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. If a screening test does show a growth or abnormal change, it doesn't always mean the person has skin cancer. More tests will be needed.

Biopsy: A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether the problem is cancer. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is taken from the abnormal area and looked at under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Check with your doctor to see what cancer screening tests your elderly loved ones should have.

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