Prevention and Early Detection

Any illness should be diagnosed and treated as early as possible, but an early diagnosis is especially important for cancer: the earlier cancer is detected and treated, the better a person's chances for a full recovery. In addition to being aware of symptoms of cancer, both women and men should have regular physical exams. Since people with cancer won't always show symptoms, tests and regular physical exams can help detect cancerous cells in the colon, rectum, mouth, skin, breast, cervix, prostate and testicles, that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Signs and Symptoms of Cancer
Cancer and other illnesses often cause a number of problems you can watch for. The most common signs are:

  • Change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A sore throat that does not heal
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump in breast or elsewhere
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Obvious change in a wart or mole
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness

These signs and symptoms can be caused by cancer or a number of other health problems. They are not a sure sign of cancer. However, it is important to see a doctor if any problem lasts as long as two weeks. Don't wait for symptoms to become painful; pain is not an early sign of cancer.

American Cancer Society Recommendations for the Early Detection of Cancer
Test or Procedure
Colon and Rectal Examination
M and F
50 and Over
Ask your health care professional what kind of regular exam you need.
Digital Rectal Examination
M and F
Over 40
Every year
Pap Test
All women who are or have been sexually active or have reached age 18 should have an annual pap test and pelvic examination. After a woman has had three or more consecutive satisfactory normal annual examinations, the Pap test may be performed less frequently at the discretion of the physician.
Pelvic Examination
Breast Self-Examination
20 and Over
Every month
Breast Physical Examination
Over 40
Every 3 years
Every year
50 and Over
Every 1-2 years
Every year
Health Counseling and
Cancer Checkup*
M and F
M and F
Over 20
Over 40
Every 3 years
Every year
* To include examination for cancers of the thyroid, testicles, prostate, ovaries, lymph nodes, oral region and skin, refer to Cancer Facts for Men and Women pamphlet.


What is Cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal, continuous multiplying of cells. The cells divide uncontrollably and may grow into nearby tissue or spread to distant parts of the body. The mass of cancer cells eventually becomes large enough to produce lumps, masses, or tumors that can be detected, which can be either benign or malignant.
Benign tumors:

  • are not cancerous
  • can usually be removed
  • do not come back in most cases
  • do not spread to other parts of the body, and the cells do not invade other tissues

Malignant tumors:

  • are cancerous
  • can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs
  • metastasize (cancer cells break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system to form secondary tumors in other parts of the body)

The smallest cancer that can be detected by examination, x-ray, or scan is slightly less than one-quarter of an inch in diameter and contains between a million to a billion cancer cells.

General Categories of Cancer

There are several general categories of cancer, with carcinomas and adenocarcinomas being the most common.


Cancers that occur in epithelial surfaces, which are the cells that form on the outer surface of the body to line or cover the body's cavities, tubes, and passageways.


Cancers that form on a glandular surface, such as the lung, breast, prostate, ovary, or kidney.


Cancers that occur in supporting structures, such as bone, muscle, cartilage, fat, or fibrous tissue.

Leukemias and lymphomas

Cancers that occur in blood cell elements.

Brain cancers, nerve cancers, melanomas, and certain testicular and ovarian cancers do not fall into a general category.

Primary Cancers

Cancers begin in a single cell, and that cell is the site of the primary cancer. The cancer is named for this primary site of origin, such as skin, colon, or breast. For example, when cancer is found in the liver but originated in the colon, it is called colon cancer that has metastasized to the liver, not liver cancer. Liver cancers are those that originated from a liver cell.

When cancer spreads to the regional lymph nodes, those nodes are said to contain metastatic cancer. Cancers that originate in the lymph cells of a node are called lymphomas.

Metastatic Cancers

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastatic cancer. Spreading may occur by direct extension or invasion into adjacent tissues. Systemic spread throughout the body may occur by way of the:

Blood System

Arteries and veins take blood to and from all areas of the body

Lymphatic System

A network of lymphatic vessels in all areas of the body that drain and filter infectious agents

Cerebrospinal Fluid


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