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How to catch cancer early

Cancer is most treatable and beatable during its earliest stages. But how does a person detect cancer early, when he or she may not even realize cancer is present? There are a few steps to take.

Screening tests

Scheduling screening tests for common cancers, even if there are no symptoms present, is an effective way to detect cancer in its early stages. The American Cancer Society recommends the following tests.

· Breast cancer: Women between the ages of 40 and 44 can begin to schedule annual breast cancer screenings if they so choose. The ACS recommends women between the ages of 45 and 54 schedule annual screenings, after which mammograms can occur every two years.

· Colorectal cancer: Regular screenings for colorectal cancers can begin at age 45 with stool-based or visual exams that look for signs of cancer.

· Cervical cancer: This cancer screening should begin at age 25 and continue until women are 65. Pap tests and human papillomavirus tests are recommended at various intervals, typically between three and five years for healthy women.

· Skin cancer: All people regardless of age are advised to check their skin regularly for any changes that may indicate the presence of skin cancer.

Screenings for prostate cancer, lung cancer, endometrial cancer, and some others may be important for those with a family history of these cancers or those who are at higher risk due to various behaviors. People are urged to speak with their physicians about cancer screenings and any additional steps they can take to lower their risk for cancer.

Looking for microvesticles

To detect cancers earlier, doctors may employ blood tests that examine the presence of microvesticles in the blood. Harvard Medical School says cells shed microvesticles, but the amount shed by tumors is substantial. However, finding these very small particles requires a powerful device and complicated lab process. Newer innovations at the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital have led to the development of a handheld device that uses a nanotechnology sensor to detect tumor microvesticles in a drop of blood in roughly two hours. This technology has the potential to diagnose cancer much earlier, according to Dr. Ralph Weissleder, director of the center and developer of the technology.

Feeling "off"

Individuals are their best advocates for early cancer detection. Any symptom that is out of the ordinary and persists should be treated as a red flag. Lumps, pains, the presence of blood in stool or urine, persistent coughs, fatigue, abnormal vaginal discharge, sores that do not heal, and a loss of appetite all could be early signs of cancer. People are urged to schedule appointments with their primary care doctors to discuss any abnormalities.

As cancer spreads, it can affect the effectiveness of treatment. This also may affect chances of survival. The earlier one detects cancer, the greater his or her chances of surviving the disease.

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