Test could one day determine cancer risk

Our blood harbors a lot of secrets about our health.

A blood test can help spot the first signs of heart disease, diabetes and infection. So, it would be nice to have a blood test to screen for the earliest signs we might have cancer, any cancer. However, the Winship Cancer Institute's Dr. Steve Szabo, Director of Community Oncology at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital, says we're not there yet.

Szabo says cancer is incredibly complex.

"One of the misconceptions that I think people have is that cancer is this monolithic disease, this one disease," Dr. Szabo says. "But cancer is not hundreds of diseases, but thousands of diseases. So, it would be hard to have one blood test for all cancers."

Still, Dr. Szabo says there good screening tools available right now that save thousands of lives every year.

Mammograms can spot the first signs of breast cancer. Colonoscopies detect colon cancer. Women can undergo a Pap test, or an HPV test, that can spot early cervical cancer.

Some men may want to undergo at PSA blood test to look for changes in their blood that could indicate prostate cancer. That screening tool is a little more controversial.

The screening tool Dr. Szabo is most excited about is low-dose CT scanning now being used to screen longtime or former smokers lung cancer.

"And when we talk about low-dose CT scanning, what you're talking about is very low doses of radiation," says Szabo. "Because there is always that concern, the radiation. Is that going to cause more cancer? But if you look at low dose CT scanning, it's really no more (radiation) than a mammogram."

"So we put them in a screening program where you get a CT scan every year," he says. "And, if they find something, that's the important thing, that they are sent to a specialist."

Dr. Szabo says your primary care doctor can help you decide when to start getting screened for different cancers. And he says -- one day -- maybe in the next 10 to 20 years that blood test -- could give us all the answers we need.