Going to the doctor for an annual checkup may not be the most exciting thing you can think of, but don’t wait to get a screening test for the most common cancers that affect men. They’re easier to treat when you catch them early.
Since the disease usually starts with growths called polyps in your colon, some screening exams look for them. The goal is to find them before they turn into cancer or while they’re still in the early stages.
Colonoscopy. Your doctor puts a flexible tube with a tiny camera into your rear end so he can see the inside of your colon and rectum. A day or so before the test, you can’t have food — only clear liquids — and you’ll need to drink a laxative.
The procedure takes about 30 minutes. You’ll get medicine to make you drowsy or put you to sleep, as well as numbing medication. Your doctor will usually remove any polyps and perhaps bits of tissue from your colon. Then he’ll send them to a lab to get checked for signs of cancer.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy. It’s like a colonoscopy, but it only lets your doctor see about a third of your colon. You don’t have to do as much prep, and you can usually stay awake. This test takes about 20 minutes.
Fecal tests. Both the guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) and the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) look for tiny amounts of blood in your poop, because cancers in the colon and rectum sometimes bleed.
You’ll collect a small amount of your poop with a special kit at home, and then send it to a lab. You might have to avoid certain foods and medicines beforehand.
A stool DNA test is similar, but the lab will also check for traces of cells from polyps or cancer with changes in their genes.
Men should start getting screened between 50 and 75 years old, but you might need to start earlier if you’re at high risk for colorectal cancer. If you’re older, ask your doctor whether you still need to.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) — a panel of medical experts — recommends you have a:
- Colonoscopy once every 10 years, or
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years, plus FOBT every 3 years, or
- FOBT every year
It’s the second most common cancer in men. Different health groups have their own guidelines. Your doctor can recommend which tests you should have and how often to get them.
PSA (prostate specific antigen). It looks for a protein in your blood that prostate cells release. Cancer causes the PSA level to rise. The problem is that other conditions, like an enlarged prostate, can also raise those levels.
Digital rectal exam (DRE). During this test, you either bend forward while standing or lie on your side on an exam table. Then your doctor puts a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum to feel for any lumps in your prostate. You might bleed a little bit afterward.
The USPSTF doesn’t recommend the PSA test, and some experts don’t recommend the DRE for screening. The American Cancer Society suggests you talk to your doctor about what makes sense for you.
Most men may want to get a PSA test, and possibly a DRE, starting at age 50. If you’re African-American, have or may have a faulty BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or other men (especially younger than 65) in your family have had prostate cancer, you may need to start testing earlier.
It’s the deadliest cancer in men. Smoking is a big reason, so you should get a screening test if you’ve got a long history of tobacco use.
Doctors check for lung cancer with an LDCT (low-dose computed tomography) scan. This test uses X-rays to make pictures of your lungs.
It’s pretty straightforward. You lie on your back and raise your arms over your head as the table moves through the scanner. You’ll have to hold your breath for 5 to 10 seconds while it’s done.
You should probably get an LDCT scan once a year if you:
- Are 55 to 80 years old, and
- Have smoked at least a pack a day for 30 years (or an equal amount, such as two packs a day for 15 years), and
- Smoke now, or you quit within the past 15 years.
Your doctor will let you know if and when it’s OK to stop getting annual scans.
The USPSTF doesn’t make a recommendation one way or the other about skin exams. But the American Cancer Society says regular checks by your doctor are a good way to find skin cancers early, when they’re easiest to treat. If you’ve had the disease in the past, or you have family members who’ve had it, ask your doctor how often you should get a skin exam.
Your doctor will look for any moles or other growths on your skin that might be cancer. You can also check your skin yourself at least once a month for changes.