Screening for cancer: Understanding the basics

Screening will pick up cancer at an early stage. /Net photo

When it comes to cancer, people have many questions but unfortunately, the answers aren’t always clear. However, learning the basics can help in detecting the deadly ailment in its early stages and dealing with it accordingly.

Cancer screening is an important tool in the prevention of cancers in general because when abnormally proliferated tissue or cancer is found early, it becomes much easier and less costly to treat.


Dr Emmanuel Rudakemwa, an associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Oshen King Faisal Hospital, says that screening is an available tool used to make sure that the population at risk is checked with the purpose to detect cancers early as this helps people live longer and relatively stable.


With no particular cause of cancer yet certain, some cancers have increased likelihood risks of occurrence, this makes screenings very important.


Cancer screening has all the benefits related to individuals, family, social and nationwide importance, Prof Rudakemwa, says.

Screenings allow medics to see anomalies in the body that can be then tested for cancer. They also help detect early stage cancers, which makes it easier to treat.

“Prevention is better than cure and when it comes to non-communicable diseases and cancers in general, you encourage people to take care of their bodies,” he adds.

With the ever increasing cancer concern, cancer screenings are of great importance, however, not all cancers can be screened.

So which cancers can be screened and when?


Rudakemwa notes that with breast cancer, screening is done by mammography.

“There is something we call a triple test which includes: clinical breast exam, breast ultrasound and then mammography, this increases the sensitivity and specificity to detect the cancer,” he explains.

Breast cancer screenings are usually done for women aged 35 years and above.


This is cancer of the colon or rectum, located at the digestive tract’s lower end. It affects both men and women though there is more relative dominance to men than women.

Rudakemwa says that this kind of cancer can be screened from the rectum (the final section of the large intestine) to the cecum (the beginning of the large intestine) and it is done for people aged 40 years and above, unless there are other medically indicated risk factors.

“We do colonoscopies, a procedure in which a flexible fibre-optic instrument is inserted through the anus in order to examine the colon. We can also do virtual CT colonoscopy and fortunately, we have that technology available here at Oshen King Faisal and a few other hospitals in Rwanda.  Through the screening, we check your entire large bowel for any lesions,” he explains.


Screening for this cancer is particularly done for the people that have high risks, that is, those who smoke.

“We are lucky most of the insurances are now accepting screening, people need to know this.

“For lung cancer screening, it is done for people aged 40 years and above and it can be done in so many ways, for example, chest X-ray and CT scan, where we are able to see the lungs and notice if there are any nodules.  We also have computer aided techniques that enable us to see very small nodules, and if you detect them early, you are able to deal with them early enough, the professor says.


The Pap smear is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests for cervical cancers.

“In our set up, cervical cancers contribute to the highest burden of disease and the major cause of morbidity and mortality. But we are very lucky that we are able to fight this cancer through targeted screening and through extensive vaccination programme available in our country.”

It is advisable to go for check-ups between the ages of 35 and 65, and these should be done at least once in two years.


It is one of the major causes of morbidity and mortality in African men.

It also has a genetic predisposition, for example, if a father had prostate cancer then a son should beware of the risks, always be vigilant and get checked, Rudakemwa notes.

It is also screened from age 40 and above. Screening is done through prostate specific antigen (an antigen detected in blood).

“There is a certain threshold at which we say that this is highly suspicious, we also combine this with a digital rectal examination, where you feel the prostate, and as you are touching or feeling the prostate, you know that it is not in a good state,” he says.

Rudakemwa also says that they can do a transrectal ultra sound and an MRI, which are both techniques and technologies available in Rwanda.

“All these procedures can act as screening measures but they can as well guide in the diagnosis,” he says.


With our current national non communicable disease control plan, we advise an annual breast mammography and cervical cancer screening, bi-annual colorectal, lung and prostate check. 

“There is, however, no compulsory number of times like it is in the developed world.

“Screening for all these cancers is possible and done at Oshen King Faisal because we are well-equipped to provide the services.”


The risks are there but when one considers the benefits, it is important to opt for screening.

“Let’s say, for instance, with breast cancer, a mammography is risky because we use x-rays to generate images and radiation which can affect tissues.

“I can tell you that as a person who deals with people with cancer, it is best to opt for early screening because it’s only then that the cancer will be detected and doctors could be able to administer appropriate treatment and improve the outcome,” he says.


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