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Cancer Tests

Cancer Tests You Should Know About, A Guide For People 65 And Over

National Cancer Institutes Most people don't like to think about cancer. But think about this: The earlier cancer is found, the better the chances of beating it.

Cancer Tests You Should Know About describes simple tests that can help find cancer early, long before any symptoms appear. You may have heard of some of them, such as mammograms or rectal and prostate exams.

Despite what many people think, most people who are tested will not have cancer. But if it turns out you do, this booklet can help you find the best care.

Why Is It Important To Find Cancer Early?

Cancers that are found early may be easier to cure. Early treatment can be simpler, making it easier to go about daily life. All in all, finding cancer early could:

  • Save your life.
  • Help you live life to the fullest.

Why Should You Think About Cancer?

Anyone can get cancer. But you are more likely to get cancer as you get older--even if no one in your family has had it. It may surprise you to learn that more than one-half of all cancers occur in people age 65 and over.

If You Did Have Cancer, Wouldn't You Know It?

Most cancers in their earliest, most treatable stages do not cause any symptoms or pain. That is why it is so important to have regular cancer tests. They can find problems early--long before you would notice anything wrong.

But What If You Do Notice Something Wrong?

Certain changes could be a sign of cancer. For example, a change in bowel habits could mean cancer of the colon or rectum. A breast lump could mean breast cancer. Don't assume these or other changes are just a normal pan of growing older. See your doctor right away.

Who Should You Ask About Cancer Tests?

Perhaps you see one doctor just for your back or another doctor just for your heart. Maybe you see one doctor for checkups, but the subject of cancer has not come up. Why not bring it up yourself? Ask your family doctor, internist, or other trusted health professional about getting tested for cancer. The next section tells you about the tests to detect cancer early.

Cancer Tests

The tests in this booklet are right for most people age 65 and over.* But you and your doctor need to decide what is right for you. You may need certain tests more often if you have had cancer before, have some other medical conditions, or have a family member who has had cancer.

Most of the cancer tests described in this booklet take little time. Some tests may be uncomfortable, but they are not painful. Cancer tests are usually done right in your doctor's office.

Pring this out and bring this the next time you see your doctor. Together you can schedule your cancer tests. Then, as you get each test, write the date in the space provided.

You may be concerned about the cost of these cancer tests. Ask your doctor if Medicare will help or ask your own insurance company if they cover these tests. Medicare helps pay for some mammograms and Pap smears.

* For guidelines for people under 65, call the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).


A woman's risk of breast cancer increases with age. Fortunately, women can take three steps to find cancer early:


This x-ray of the breast can reveal problems up to 2 years before a lump can be felt. To find out where to get a mammogram, ask your doctor. Or, call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service at: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Recommended: Every year.

Breast Exam

Your doctor should check your breasts for problems or changes that could be a sign of breast cancer.

Recommended: Every year, or as part of your regular health checkup.

Breast self-exam

Ask your doctor or nurse for instructions. You also can call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) for a free booklet.

Recommended: Every month.


As women get older they have a higher risk of cancers of the female sex organs--especially cancers of the uterus and cervix. If you stopped seeing your gynecologist after menopause (change of life), it is important to ask your doctor about the following tests:

Pelvic Exam

The doctor feels the internal sex organs, bladder, and rectum for any changes in size or shape.

Recommended: Every year.

Pap smear

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is usually done at the same time as the pelvic exam. During this test, the doctor removes a few cells from the cervix with a swab. The cells then are checked under a microscope. After three normal annual Pap tests, your doctor may decide not to do the test for the next 1 to 3 years.

Recommended: Every year.


Cancers of the colon and rectum are more likely to occur as people get older. Three tests can help find these cancers early:

Rectal Exam

In this test, the doctor gently feels for any bumps or irregular areas on the rectum.

Recommended: Every year, or as part of your regular health checkup.

Guaiac stool test

The guaiac (pronounced "gwy-ack") stool test is sometimes called a "fecal" or "stool" occult test or "hemoccult" test. This test can find unseen blood in stool samples. Your doctor can give you a simple kit to collect stool samples at home. Or, your doctor can do the test as part of a rectal exam.

Recommended: Every year.

Sigmoidoscopy or "procto"

The doctor looks for cancer in the colon and rectum with a thin, lighted instrument called a sigmoidoscope.

Recommended: Every 3 to 5 years.


Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men--especially older men. More than 80 percent of prostate cancer cases occur in men age 65 and over.

Rectal Exam

The doctor feels the prostate through the rectum. Hard or lumpy areas may mean cancer is present.

Recommended: Every year.


The prostate-specific antigen test (PSA) measures the level of a specific protein in a man's blood. The protein seems to increase in cases of prostate cancer and other prostate diseases.

The National Cancer Institute is studying whether screening with the PSA test along with a rectal exam may help decrease deaths from prostate cancer.


Transrectal ultrasound (TRUS) detects cancer by using sound waves produced by an instrument inserted into the rectum. The waves bounce off the prostate, and the pattern of the echoes made by the waves is converted to a picture by computer. TRUS is not a routine test. The doctor will use this exam to help diagnose a man's problem.


The three tests suggested for women also are suggested for men.

Rectal exam

Recommended: Every year, or as part of your regular health checkup.

Guaiac stool test

Recommended: Every year.

Sigmoidoscopy or "procto"

Recommended: Every 3 to 5 years.

What If You Find Out You Have Cancer?

Today, there are new and better ways to treat cancer. If you are told you have cancer, take these steps to get the best possible care:

Find a doctor who is right for you and the kind of cancer you have. Oncologists are doctors specially trained to treat cancer.

Find out what your treatment choices are and which are best for you. If you don't understand something, ask.

Get a second opinion from another doctor before treatment begins. Doctors and most insurance companies expect their patients to do this. Many doctors will help you get a second opinion.

Talk to your family and friends and ask for their support. Or ask your doctor to help you find other people or groups who can help. No one needs to handle cancer alone.

Call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) for help with all these steps. Staff members can give you information about treatment and where to get it. They also can direct you to groups that may be able to help with transportation, finances, and dealing with your problems. Spanish-speaking staff members can be reached at this toll-free number.

Ask your doctor to check the National Cancer Institute's PDQ system. This computer system has the most up-to-date treatment information in the United States. You or your doctor can call the Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER) to learn more about PDQ.

Want To Learn More About Cancer?

Call the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) for information and booklets about cancer.

Or, write to:

Office of Cancer Communications
National Cancer Institute
Building 31, Room 10A24
Bethesda, MD 20892

For more information on aging, write to:

National Institute on Aging
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057

Why Get Tested for Cancer?

Most cancers in their earliest stages do not cause symptoms or pain. Get checked for cancer when you're feeling well... for good health and a good life.

Information provided by NIH.