Screening for cancer: Colon, lung, and skin cancers

One of modern medicine's proudest achievements is its ever-improving ability to detect disease early. The rationale is obvious: Early diagnosis leads to early treatment and a better outcome. When it comes to a disease like cancer, early diagnosis is particularly important, even urgent.

There are many ways to facilitate early detection. People should learn to recognize warning symptoms and call them to a doctor's attention. Physicians should perform careful exams and follow up on any abnormalities they find. And testing should be used to root out disease even before it shows up on a doctor's exam or causes any symptoms at all.

Screening tests are procedures performed on a routine basis when people feel well and neither patients nor their doctors have any specific cause for concern. Screening tests have been spectacularly successful in detecting cardiovascular risk factors. Routine blood pressure checks and cholesterol tests are the best examples. Both can detect abnormalities long before they cause any symptoms, and both can lead to safe and effective lifestyle and medical treatments. Screening for high blood pressure and increased cholesterol levels gets much of the credit for the 56% decrease in deaths from heart disease and the 70% decline in stroke deaths that Americans have enjoyed over the past 50 years.

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