Cancer screening – detecting cancer early

Screening in general means looking for a disease before any symptoms appear. More specifically, cancer screening aims to detect the cancer early, especially those at high risk for spreading, and to treat them before they spread.

While the cause of cancer continues to be researched, research has shown that men who are over the age of 50, who are obese or not physically active, with a poor diet, and a family history of cancer are at higher risk of developing certain cancers, such as colon and prostate cancer.

Colon cancer

Colon cancer occurs when cancerous cells appear in the colon tissue. Usually they begin as small polyps that become malignant.1

Tests to check for colon cancer include:2,3,4

  • Physical and rectal exam and blood test
  • Fecal occult blood test, which checks stools for microscopic traces of blood
  • Colonoscopy, where the colon is analyzed via a tube with a tiny camera on the end inserted into the rectum
  • Virtual colonoscopy, which uses a CT scan to view the abdominal organs, aided by the insertion of air or carbon dioxide into the colon via the rectum
  • Sigmoidoscopy, where a small tube with a camera is inserted into the rectum to allow the doctor to see the rectum and most of the sigmoid colon (the lower part)
  • Barium enema, involving x-rays of the lower gastrointestinal tract
  • Biopsy, where a small sample of tissue is taken for testing

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer develops when cells in the prostate are abnormal, grow, and divide to form a tumor.5 The two most common tests to screen for prostate cancer are:

  1. A blood test: The prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a substance found in the prostate. The PSA test measures the level of PSA in the blood. If the PSA level is high, it may indicate prostate cancer, an enlarged prostate, or a prostate infection, among others.6

  2. A digital rectal examination: This is done by a health care provider who will do a physical examination to feel the prostate for any abnormalities that could indicate cancer.6

Next steps

If cancer is detected, MRI scans, PET scans, x-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans may be used to determine the extent and stage of the cancer.


"As cancer screening can detect cancer at an early stage, the main benefit of screening is its ability to save lives," says Jose Luis Gesteira Campañó, Nurse Case Manager at Cigna. "If cancer is picked up early, it means that treatment is more likely to work, leading to more people surviving it. That's why knowing what to look out for and being aware of the initial symptoms are really important."

  • Symptoms associated with prostate cancer: An increased need to urinate, straining while urinating, and a feeling of never fully emptying your bladder.5,7
  • Symptoms associated with colon cancer: Persistent change in bowel habits (such as diarrhea or constipation), a feeling of not being able to empty your bowels, blood in your stool, persistent abdominal discomfort, unintentional weight loss, and unexplained fatigue and/or weakness.1,8

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This article was reviewed by Jose Luis Gesteira Campañó, Nurse Case Manager, TH&N – Integrated Health Team, Cigna.

  1. Colon cancer. Symptoms & causes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  2. Colon Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  3. Colon cancer screening: Weighing the options. Mayo Clinic. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  4. Colon cancer. Diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  5. Prostate cancer. Symptoms & causes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  6. Prostate Cancer Awareness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed December 7, 2021.
  7. Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer. NHS. Accessed December 7, 2021.