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Get the Facts: Men’s Cancer Check-up

Focused on Health - September 2009

By Adelina Espat

Get tested for cancer. It’s one of your best defense strategies for beating the disease. If cancer is hiding out in your body, regular check-ups will help your doctor find the disease as early as possible. Your chances for a cure are greatest when the disease is found at an early stage.

Cancer screening exams are medical tests done when you’re healthy, and you don’t have any signs of illness. Depending on your age, your doctor can screen you for prostate, colorectal and skin cancer.

Don’t wait for signs of illness to show-up

You may think you don’t need to get tested because your body is working just fine – but that’s not true. Cancer in its earliest stages usually has no telltale signs. Symptoms may appear after the disease is further along.

Get your prostate checked

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. Finding and treating it early can lead to cure and fewer side effects. The two exams doctors use to test for prostate cancer are the prostate specific antigen, or PSA, blood test and the digital rectal exam.

During a rectal exam, the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel if the prostate gland is enlarged. The PSA test is a simple blood test that measures the amount of prostate specific antigen in a man’s bloodstream. This antigen is a protein produced by the cells of the prostate gland. This measurement, along with the rectal exam and other factors, helps your doctor determine if you have prostate cancer.

Reviewing your PSA test results over the past four or more years – instead of looking only at a one-time score – can greatly help you and your doctor to determine if you are at increased risk for the disease. It’s helpful to use the same doctor each year, so your test results are in the same place. If you go to different doctors, get your test results together so your current doctor can compare results with previous years.

Get a colonoscopy to prevent and find cancer early

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men. It is a cancer that can be treated and cured when found early. A colonoscopy finds colorectal cancer early and removes abnormal cells that may turn into cancer. Doing this can prevent cancer altogether.

During a colonoscopy, the doctor gently puts a thin, bendable tube, called a “colonoscope,” inside your colon. This tube is about as thick as your finger, and has a light and tiny video camera that sends pictures to a TV screen. This camera allows the doctor to look closely at the inside of your colon to check for cancer or polyps. Polyps are small growths that can become cancer over time.

After putting the tube in your rectum and up through your colon, the doctor places small puffs of air in your colon to keep it open. This allows the doctor to see more clearly. The entire exam takes about 15 to 30 minutes. You may get medicine to help you relax or to put you to sleep during the exam.

To get the best results from your colonoscopy, it is very important that the insides of your colon are squeaky clean. If your colon has too much digested food in it, your doctor will not be able to see abnormalities inside your colon. To prepare for a colonoscopy, you may need to follow a liquid diet for one to three days before the exam. Your doctor also will give you special medications, laxatives or an enema to clean out your bowels. You will do this part of the “bowel prep” on the night before the exam.

Getting a colonoscopy can be expensive. The fecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is less expensive and looks for hidden blood in your stool. This can be a sign of cancer. For an FOBT, the doctor gives you a test kit that explains how to take a stool sample at home. After you complete the test, you return the kit to the doctor’s office for additional testing. If the doctor finds blood in your stool, you may need to get a colonoscopy.

Look for skin changes

Skin cancer is the most common cancer of all. Most forms of skin cancer can be treated and cured when found early. Finding suspicious skin changes starts by getting familiar with your skin. Even people with dark skin should look out for skin changes. 

Look for changes in the shape, color or size of new and existing growths or moles on the skin. The best time to check your skin is after a shower or bath. Find a well-lit room, and use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror to check yourself from head to toe.

  • Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror, then raise your arms and look at your left and right sides
  • Bend your elbows and look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides) and upper arms
  • Examine your legs, including the back, front and sides
  • Sit and closely examine your feet, including the toenails, soles and spaces between the toes
  • Look at your face, neck, ears and scalp. You may want to ask a relative, friend or barber to check through your hair because this is difficult to do yourself

By checking your skin regularly, you will become familiar with what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and write notes about the way your skin looks, or take photos.

If you find anything unusual, including a sore that isn’t healing or a change in a mole or freckle, see your doctor right away. Your doctor may do the following tests to check for skin cancer if something looks abnormal.

Skin exam: A doctor or nurse looks at the skin for moles, birthmarks or other pigmented areas that look abnormal in color, size, shape or texture.

Biopsy: A doctor removes as much of the unusual mole or skin area as possible. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Ask your doctor about your personal risk for cancer

When and how often you get tested for cancer depends on your chances, or risks, of getting cancer. Some risk factors, like smoking, we can control. Others, like race, we can’t change.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely get cancer, but it does mean that you may be more likely to get the disease. People at increased risk may need to start screening exams at an earlier age, get additional tests or be screened more often.

Speak with your doctor about cancer screening exams. A doctor can help you learn about your personal risk.

Get the right test at the right age

Here’s a quick cheat sheet for you. Below are exams you should get based on your age.

Exams for men age 20 to 49

  • Skin exam (Check your skin regularly for suspicious skin areas, sores that don’t heal, or changes in a mole or freckle.)

Exams for men age 45 to 75 who are African American or have a family history (father, brother, son) of prostate cancer

  • Digital rectal exam and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test every year

Exams for men age 50 to 75

  • Digital rectal exam and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test every year
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Skin exam (Check your skin regularly for suspicious skin areas, non-healing sores or changes in a mole or freckle.)

Exams for men age 75 and older

  • Speak with your doctor about whether you should continue prostate and colorectal cancer screening exams.

The above screening schedule is for men at average risk for cancer, who have at least a 10-year life expectancy and no existing health conditions that would limit a doctor’s ability to find and treat cancer. Your doctor may recommend doing these tests more often if you are at higher than normal risk.

Related Links
Tracking Your PSA: Be Proactive!
Get the Facts: Colonoscopy vs. Virtual Colonoscopy
Just the Facts…Skin Cancer (pdf)

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center