Cancer Screening: Beating Your Fears for Good

Many people, it seems, avoid cancer screenings, even if they schedule yearly physical exams.

Susan DeCristofaro, R.N., M.S., O.C.N., isn't surprised. As director of patient family education for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, DeCristofaro has heard a variety of reasons for not getting screenings. "Patients tell us they have no time, that they have to put their family first. Some just don't have the health insurance to pay for screenings and they can't afford it. And others believe they're fine, so they're of the opinion if it's not broken, why fix it?"

These excuses actually mask two reasons patients don't get screened, one of which is inconvenience. "These screenings aren't painful, but they do take time," says DeCristofaro.

The other reason: fear. "There's a real fear and denial about cancer. That's why, deep down, most people avoid getting screened," she says.

She stresses, however, that many cancers can be treated successfully, or at least kept in check, if caught early enough. And the screenings represent the best route to early detection.

"The longer the cancer is in the body, and the longer it remains untreated, the more likely it will move to another part of the body through the circulatory system or lymph glands," she says. "That's how it spreads."

The good news is that being screened for cancer doesn't have to be a traumatic experience for anyone.

Steps to take

Exactly what screenings you should have depends on your age and risk factors. Children and teens, for instance, don't need screening. Adults should start with a physical exam and then ask your doctor which screenings you should have.

"Getting to a health care professional's office is a good start and, for many people, the first step," says DeCristofaro. "Depending on the person's age, gender and risk factors, the doctor may suggest a colonoscopy or a mammography or another screening if warranted."

DeCristofaro offers the following tips to help people overcome their fears of screenings:

  • Do as much research about cancer screenings as possible. Don't just rely on the popular media. Find reliable sources to verify information you find in popular media. "Reading and learning about cancer screenings is of enormous assistance," she says. "Education and talking to others who have gone through it is important for patients' peace of mind and lets them know what they can expect."

  • Take a friend with you who has already been through a screening. "You don't need to go to a screening by yourself," she says. "Take someone, a friend, anyone, to keep you company."

  • Don't be afraid it will hurt. "I can't think of one screening that's truly painful. It's inconvenient, it's time-consuming, but it's not painful," she says. While mammography may sometimes be uncomfortable for a few seconds as the technician positions the breast to get a better picture, it is not painful.

DeCristofaro also has a message for those who have had cancer: Tell your friends to get the screenings.

"The survivors out there can help a great deal by going out and encouraging people to get their cancer screenings," she says. "Even if you can encourage just one person to get screened just one time a year, that can help."

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