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Understanding Cancer: Are health screenings essential for detecting cancer early?

Top 5 Cancers by Gender

Last Updated on by Tree of Wealth

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Cancer cases have been increasing every year in Singapore and are expected to continue to rise. The country witnesses thousands of new cancer cases annually, making it one of the leading causes of death.

That being said, to detect cancer early is actually crucial and essential. Health screenings play a vital role in detecting cancer early, which is critical in ensuring successful treatment and recovery.

In this topic, we will delve into the significance of health screenings in identifying cancer at its initial stages, the available screening methods, and why regular screenings are essential for maintaining good health.

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What are the causes of cancer?

To fully know the reason of it cannot be comprehended as our understanding of the causes of cancer is incomplete. While certain viral infections can increase the risk of cancer, it’s important to note that cancer is not contagious and cannot be transmitted from person to person.

The development of cancer is a complex process influenced by a range of factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle. Studies suggest that up to 80% of all cancer cases are linked to lifestyle factors such as tobacco use, diet, and exposure to carcinogens in the environment or workplace. Additionally, some individuals may be more susceptible to cancer due to inherited genetic predisposition.

It’s important to note that having a risk factor for cancer does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop cancer, as most people with risk factors do not end up developing the disease.

Cancer Incidence
Source: NCS

Several factors are known to increase the risk of cancer.

Tobacco Use

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for cancer, accounting for up to one-third of all cancer deaths. Smoking tobacco, using smokeless tobacco, and being regularly exposed to environmental tobacco smoke are all known to cause cancer. Smoking is responsible for more than 90% of lung cancer deaths, and can also increase the risk of developing cancers of the larynx, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, and more. Quitting smoking can help to reduce the risk, as the risk of cancer begins to decrease as soon as smoking is stopped. Even exposure to environmental smoke can increase the risk of lung cancer, with a 30% increased risk for non-smoking spouses of smokers and possibly for children as well. Therefore, avoiding tobacco use is the best way to minimize the risk of developing cancer.

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Choice of Food

One’s dietary choices can impact the likelihood of developing cancer. A diet high in fat has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, including breast, colon, uterus, and prostate cancer. Additionally, being overweight has been associated with higher rates of prostate, pancreas, uterus, colon, and ovary cancer. Conversely, consuming foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and cereals may have a protective effect against certain types of cancer.

Alcoholic Drinks

Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol elevates the likelihood of developing cancer in the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx (voice box). The combined use of tobacco and alcohol can further increase the risk of developing cancer. Prolonged alcohol consumption can also cause liver damage, leading to an increased risk of liver cancer.

External Exposures

There are various factors that can increase the risk of cancer, including exposure to environmental chemicals such as asbestos, nickel, cadmium, uranium, radon, vinyl chloride, benzidene, and benzene. It is important to follow safety guidelines and work rules to avoid contact with dangerous materials.

Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight without protection can also cause skin cancer.


Chronic infection with certain viruses and bacteria, such as Human Papilloma virus (HPV), Hepatitis B/C viruses, Epstein Barr virus, and Helicobacter Pylori bacteria, can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as cervical, liver, nasopharyngeal, and stomach cancers, respectively.


In addition, some families may have a higher incidence of certain cancers, such as melanoma (skin cancer), breast, ovary, and colon cancers, than the general population, suggesting a possible genetic predisposition to these types of cancer.

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Is early cancer detection through health screenings significant?

Between 2016 and 2020, there were 80,753 reported cases of cancer in Singapore, with 49% in males and 51% in females*. The three most prevalent cancers during this period were:

For males: colorectal cancer (6,513 cases/16.5%), prostate cancer (6,283 cases/15.9%), and lung cancer (5,368 cases/13.6%)

For females: breast cancer (12,303 cases/29.7%), colorectal cancer (5,364 cases/13%), and lung cancer (3,252 cases/7.9%).

Between 2016 and 2020, there were 80,753 reported cases of cancer in Singapore, with 49% in males and 51% in females*. The three most prevalent cancers during this period were:
Source: Singapore Cancer Society

Health screenings for early cancer detection are crucial in ensuring that several types of cancer are treated effectively, especially when the cancer is detected at its initial stages. Fortunately, significant advancements in cancer treatments have improved the survival rates of individuals with cancer.

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Moreover, early detection of some common cancers has been made possible by improvements in screening techniques, leading to more timely treatment for many patients. This highlights the importance of regular health screenings, as they not only aid in early detection but also improve the chances of successful treatment.

The significance of health screenings lies in their ability to detect cancer at an early stage, even before the onset of symptoms. This is particularly vital since cancer is more manageable and treatable when detected early, with a higher likelihood of successful treatment. In fact, numerous types of cancer can be cured if identified in their early stages.

Top 5 Cancers by Gender
Source: Singapore Cancer Society
Top 5 Cancers Deaths by Gender
Source: Singapore Cancer Society

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Signs of Cancer

Although these symptoms may not always indicate cancer, they should not be ignored. Seeking medical attention immediately is recommended if any of these signs persist. The symptoms include a change in normal bowel and urinary habits, an unhealed sore, unusual bleeding or discharge, a lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere, persistent pain without an apparent cause, an obvious change in a mole or wart, a prolonged cough or hoarseness, and difficulty swallowing or persistent indigestion.

signs of cancer
Source: Singapore Cancer Society

Health Screening

In Singapore, cancer is the top cause of death. Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and responsible behavior, as well as receiving recommended vaccinations like Hepatitis B and HPV, can lower the chances of developing cancer. However, even with these precautions, cancer can still arise, and often it is not detected until it has reached an advanced and incurable stage.

Cancer Screening: Importance of Early Detection

The purpose of cancer screening is to detect cancer at an early stage, before any symptoms develop. The main objective of cancer screening is to catch cancer early when it is still treatable. It is essential to remember that cancer screening should be complemented with a healthy lifestyle, and not viewed as a substitute for it.

What advantages does cancer screening offer?

The benefits of cancer screening include the early detection of some cancers, which can increase the chances of successful treatment and reduce the need for aggressive measures. For instance, mammography screening can identify breast cancer in its early stages, such as stage 0 or 1, rather than waiting for symptoms to appear in stage 3. Early detection of breast cancer can often be treated with a lumpectomy, while a more advanced stage 3 cancer may require a mastectomy and additional treatments like chemotherapy. However, it’s important to note that cancer screening should always be combined with maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it’s not a substitute for it.

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What are the disadvantages of cancer screening?

Cancer screening, like any medical test, has its limitations. It is possible for a cancer to be missed during screening (known as false negatives), or for a normal tissue to be incorrectly identified as potentially cancerous (known as false positives). This can lead to further unnecessary tests and anxiety for the patient.

Moreover, some cancers detected through screening may be slow-growing and not require treatment. This is known as overdiagnosis bias, and can result in unnecessary treatments and procedures that could have been avoided.

cancer surviving rate in Singapore
Source: Singapore Cancer Society

What are the recommended cancer screening tests?

With the proliferation of cancer screening packages in the market, it is crucial to choose appropriate, evidence-based screening methods recommended by accepted guidelines. Unfortunately, many of these packages offer a panel of cancer marker blood tests that are not supported by evidence and may even cause harm.

To help guide physicians and the public on appropriate cancer screening, the Singapore Ministry of Health has published guidelines that are in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and other developed countries.

For individuals without symptoms or family history of the cancer being screened for, the following cancer screenings are recommended for average-risk individuals:

Breast Cancer Screening Recommendations

Mammography is the standard screening test for breast cancer. However, it is important to note that no screening test is perfect and there are both benefits and potential downsides to breast cancer screening. It is recommended to discuss with your healthcare provider the pros and cons of mammography screening. For those who are appropriate, the following is recommended:

  • Age 40-49: Mammography screening once a year
  • Age 50-69: Mammography screening once every 2 years

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Other Tumor Types Screening

The above screening recommendations only apply to those with average risks and no symptoms. If you have additional risk factors such as a family history, it may be appropriate to undergo additional tests. For example, if you have a first degree relative with nasopharyngeal cancer, seeing an ENT specialist and having a blood test may be appropriate. Similarly, if you have a history of cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis B infection, liver cancer screening with ultrasound and blood tests may be necessary.

However, it is not recommended for average risk individuals to have additional screening beyond the guidelines mentioned above. It is advisable to speak to your healthcare provider for more information on screening tests if you have additional risk factors.

Colorectal Cancer Screening RecommendationsIf you are 50 years old or older, it is recommended to undergo colorectal cancer screening. The following are the recommended screening options:

  • Faecal occult blood testing once a year
  • Colonoscopy once every 10 years
  • CT colonography once every 5 years

Discuss with your healthcare provider to determine which screening option is appropriate for you based on your medical history and preferences. It is important to note that colorectal cancer screening can help detect the disease early when it is more easily treatable.

Cervical cancer Screening Recommendations

Cervical cancer is uncommon in females who have not engaged in sexual activity, and regular screening for this group is unnecessary. However, for those who have been sexually active, the recommended screening intervals are as follows:

For individuals aged 25-29: A Pap smear every 3 years is appropriate.

For individuals aged 30 and above: An HPV DNA test every 5 years is recommended.

The method of sample collection for both the Pap smear and HPV DNA test is the same; the only variation lies in the laboratory testing method.

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Prostate Cancer Screening Recommendations

For men, prostate cancer is a significant concern, and it’s crucial to be aware of your potential risks and take action if necessary. In Singapore, prostate cancer is the second most prevalent cancer among men. Unfortunately, there is no national screening program for prostate cancer in Singapore. Nevertheless, if you exhibit any of the common symptoms or have a family history of prostate cancer, it’s recommended that you seek medical attention.

If you have a family history of prostate cancer or are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with it, it’s critical to speak with your healthcare provider. They can provide you with valuable information about your risks and suggest appropriate testing or screening options.

It’s important to remember that taking care of your health is crucial, and understanding your risks for prostate cancer is an essential aspect of this. Do not hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you have any concerns or questions.

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What You Can Anticipate During a Cancer Health Screening

If you’re scheduled to undergo a cancer screening, here’s what you can expect during the process.

First, your healthcare provider will likely ask you about your medical history and any symptoms you’ve experienced that may be related to cancer. They may also inquire about your family history of cancer.

Next, you may undergo a physical examination to check for any unusual lumps or abnormalities. Depending on the type of screening, you may also need to provide a sample of blood, urine, or tissue.

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After your screening, you may be asked to wait for your results, which could take several days or longer. If your results are positive for cancer, your healthcare provider will work with you to develop a treatment plan. If your results are negative, your provider may recommend routine follow-up screenings to monitor your health.

It’s essential to remember that early detection of cancer can significantly improve treatment outcomes, so don’t hesitate to schedule regular cancer screenings as recommended by your healthcare provider.

Lower your risk of Cancer
Source: Singapore Cancer Society

To summarize, health screenings are a vital tool for detecting cancer early, which can lead to more effective treatments and higher chances of survival. If you’re over 50, it’s recommended that you discuss cancer screenings with your doctor, even if you have no symptoms or risk factors. Regular screenings can help identify cancer before it becomes a significant health issue.

It’s important to note that screenings are only a part of maintaining good health. A healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, and avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking is also essential. Additionally, being aware of your body and any changes or symptoms is crucial. If you notice anything concerning, such as a lump or persistent pain, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.

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If you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s crucial to seek the appropriate medical care and support, which may include a team of healthcare professionals and support from loved ones.

To sum up, early detection of cancer through health screenings can help you take control of your health. By staying informed about the available screenings and discussing your screening recommendations and risk factors with your doctor, you can take proactive measures to safeguard your health and well-being. It’s never too late to prioritize your health and make positive changes in your life.

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