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Cancer is a scary word, one we're all afraid will someday be applied to us. Yet, cancer is not the death sentence it used to be. Besides, prevention of cancer with good diet and sensible lifestyle changes and also early diagnosis has saved many lives.

Early diagnosis is dependent upon screening. Those with a high risk of cancer, a history of previous cancers, or a history of cancer in the family should be particularly aware of the tests available for early detection.

Mammograms are essential for all women. No woman is entirely safe from the specter of breast cancer. There is some argument about when the first baseline mammogram should be taken, but most agree that by age 40 is a good idea. After that baseline mammogram, yearly mammograms are recommended. Schedule them on your birthday so you won't forget. What better gift to give yourself than the gift of life?

Pap smears are another test all women must use. Women without history of an atypical pap smear will usually take one every other year. Women who have had an atypical smear will require more frequent tests. Your doctor will advise you how often you will need them.

One simple cancer test doesn't even require a visit to the doctor. Checking your skin for unusual growths or moles is something that we can all do easily and privately. Use a handheld mirror to inspect your back. Check your skin often for changes, especially if you have had a very bad sunburn, are fair-haired, blue-eyed, or light-skinned. Look for moles of irregular shape or moles that are black or have grown rapidly. Any mole that has a discharge of any kind should be reported to your doctor. Watch for splotches of color on your skin that grow or change in color. Report any suspicious moles, growths, or splotches to your doctor.

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. All people are at some risk for colon cancer. For those with a history or family history of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colorectal cancer, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis, polyps or colon cancer are at higher risk. Sigmoidoscopy is a test that is done to visually inspect the colon for polyps, which are small growths that can become cancerous. Screening with sigmoidoscopy and checking the stool for blood should begin at age 50 unless you fall into a higher risk group. Consult your doctor to see when you should begin screening for this type of cancer.

Prostate cancer is something for which all men are at risk. The degree of risk varies, though. Screening for prostate cancer usually involves two tests: a digital rectal exam where the prostate is examined by touch for enlargement or irregularities and the PSA test, a blood test. The American Cancer society makes these recommendations: beginning at age 50, an annual prostate examination, including a digital rectal examination and a PSA test, should be offered annually to men who have a life expectancy of at least 10 years and to younger men who are at high risk. The ACS emphasizes the benefits of beginning annual screening at age 45 in certain high-risk populations (e.g., African-American men and men with two or more first-degree relatives with prostate cancer).

Early detection of cancer through screening has saved many lives and reduced the pain of treatment for many more. Be aware of your risks and be tested regularly.