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What are the benefits and limitations of regular cancer screening?

Almost every test or procedure has benefits and limitations. You might think of these as pros and cons. Before having any test, it's important to be aware of them so that you're making an informed decision that's right for you.

Benefits of regular cancer screening
  • Getting screened reassures you if the result is normal.
  • Cancer screening may help prevent cancer by finding changes in your body that would become cancer if left untreated.
  • Cancer screening helps find cancer early before you have symptoms when it is easier to treat.
  • Cancer screening helps find cancer before it spreads when it is easier to treat.
  • Early detection may mean less treatment and less time spent recovering.
  • The earlier a cancer is detected, the better your chance of survival.
Limitations of regular cancer screening
  • Sometimes test results suggest you have cancer even though you don't (called a false positive).
  • The test may not detect cancer even though it is present (called a false negative).
  • Some cancers would not necessarily lead to death or decreased quality of life (overdiagnosis).
  • Having screening tests may lead to more tests and procedures that may be harmful.

Female patient getting test results explained to her. A false positive can make you anxious and stressed because you think you have cancer when you don't. It may lead to further testing that is invasive and unnecessary to rule out cancer (to make sure you don't have cancer when the screening test has suggested you might).

A false negative may mistakenly reassure you and let you think you don't have cancer when you do. This may lead you to ignore symptoms that indicate the presence of cancer, causing a delay in diagnosis and treatment.

Overdiagnosis is when a test finds cancer that would not necessarily lead to death or decreased quality of life. Some cancers are slow growing or may never cause problems or need treatment. Finding these types of cancer can lead to unnecessary treatments that have side effects.

It’s your decision

When you think about how important it is to find cancer early, we believe the benefits of having regular screening tests for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer outweigh the limitations.