Preventive Screenings for Men and Women: How Helpful Are They?

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Each year when you visit your primary care provider, you are likely given a list of suggested tests and screenings for early detection of disease. This list can be different for all of us but two of the most common are screenings for breast and prostate cancer.

The recommendations for breast cancer have been steady over the years while the recommendations for prostate cancer screening continue to change.

Breast Cancer
Mammograms remain the best tool available for early detection of breast cancer. Although there has been controversy regarding the usefulness of screening mammograms, the American Cancer Society (ACS) continues to recommend yearly screening for women over the age of 40. In addition, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force agrees. For this reason, health insurance carriers are now required to ensure women receive a screening mammogram each year at no cost.

Concerns have been raised regarding the amount of radiation exposure received during a lifetime of annual screenings. However, to put this into perspective, the amount of radiation a woman receives over the period of 50 years of screening mammograms is about 20 to 40 rads (a rad is a 2100measurement of radiation dose). This dosage is minimal when compared to the 5000 rad dose of radiation a woman receives with treatment for breast cancer.

Mammograms do have limitations but the value of the screening continues to be supported by strong evidence and confirms the substantial benefit to women in their 40s. The ACS suggests screenings continue for life, as long no serious, chronic conditions exist. Experts suggest combining annual mammograms with early Clinical Breast Exams (CBE) and monthly Self Breast Exams (SBE) for best results.

Prostate Cancer
As with all cancers, early detection is key. With prostate cancer, this can be difficult, screening for prostate cancer continues to be less defined than screening for breast cancer.
The Prostate Specific Antigen or PSA and Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) are the two available tests for this cancer. Neither of these tests prove that cancer does or does not exist, they merely offer warning signs. The PSA measures a substance made in the prostate gland. The chance that prostate cancer is present is higher when the PSA is raised. However, there are many other factors that could increase a PSA such as age, enlarged prostate and certain medications. DRE is less effective than PSA at detecting prostate cancer but it may be more helpful in those with a normal PSA level. For early prostate cancer detection, it is important to watch for symptoms such as difficulty urinating, blood in urine, trouble getting an erection or pain in the lips, back or ribs. For both prostate and breast cancer risks, it is important to talk with your primary care provider (PCP). Your PCP can look at your family history and decide on the best course of action for you.