No one wants to get a cancer diagnosis. It’s one of the scariest things you can learn about your health or the health of a loved one. Although a cancer diagnosis is scary, the sooner you learn that you have cancer, the sooner you can start treatment, which can improve your chances of a better outcome. While doctors have historically been the only available source for cancer testing, improved technology has opened the market for at-home cancer tests. Which brings us to the question – can you trust at-home cancer tests?
If you want to use an at-home cancer test, I strongly suggest you discuss your plans with your doctor. At-home testing is not appropriate for everyone. For instance, some tests may not be appropriate for people with a higher than average risk of developing certain cancers.
Certainly, you should follow up with your doctor if you get a positive test result that indicates a potential issue, or if your results are “uninterpretable,” unclear, or difficult to understand.
Before you read this post to learn if you can trust at-home cancer tests, learn more about the pros and cons of at-home medical tests by reading Can You Trust At-Home Medical Tests?
Types of at-home cancer tests.
At-home cancer tests typically fall under one of these three categories:
- Self-test: You collect your sample and interpret the results yourself. Most of these tests give results within an hour or less.
- Self-collection test: You collect your sample and send it to a laboratory for analysis. You will get your results via email.
- Home-ordered tests: You order the test online or by phone, but you go to a lab for your sample collection. The lab analyzes your sample and sends you your results.
This post provides information on the following types of at-home cancer tests:
- HPV (HPV can lead to several cancers, including cervical cancer).
- Colorectal cancer.
- Prostate cancer.
Can you trust at-home tests for HPV and cervical cancer?
HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common infection that can lead to genital warts and the following types of cancer:
- Cervix, vagina, and vulva in women.
- Penis in men.
- Anus in both men and women.
- Back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils, in men and women.
Cervical cancer concerns.
Did you know that HPV causes virtually all cervical cancers? Sadly, every year in the US, about 13,000 women receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer, leading to over 4,000 deaths annually.
Importantly, most cervical cancer cases in the US occur in under-screened women, underlining the importance of HPV screening. In fact, the incidence of cervical cancer deaths has decreased more than 60% since the introduction of cervical cancer screening in the 1950s.
Note that many experts recommend HPV testing only in women 25+ years old, yet the guidelines can vary, so talk to your doctor.
HPV tests at your doctor’s office.
When you get an HPV test at your doctor’s office, he/she swabs your cervix to get a sample of cells. Then a machine tests your sample to see if HPV cells are present. Your doctor will likely also send the samples to a lab for a Pap test, during which a pathologist will evaluate your cells under a microscope to look for abnormal cells that could indicate cancer or pre-cancer. Your doctor will evaluate the results of both tests to determine the next steps.
What about at-home HPV tests?
At-home HPV tests can provide a convenient, accurate, and discrete way to find out if you have HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer and other cancers.
With an at-home test, women swab their own cervix – called self-sampling. Research shows that when women properly self-sample, the HPV tests from those samples are just as accurate as tests performed on swabs taken by a doctor. However, accuracy depends on a person’s ability to correctly retrieve a sample. The question remains – can women properly self-sample?
Importantly, the FDA has not approved any at-home tests for HPV. But clinical trials are underway to determine effectiveness.
Interestingly, at-home HPV tests are already the primary screening method in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. Additionally, the World Health Organization recommends at-home tests for HPV screening.
What about HPV testing for men?
Importantly, HPV can cause throat, penile and anal cancers in men. However, there is no approved HPV screening for men, even by a doctor. Therefore, beware of tests that offer HPV screening for males outside of a clinical trial in a trusted medical center.
Thinking of using an at-home HPV test?
Importantly, experts recommend that women with symptoms – such as abnormal bleeding, discharge or pain – should see a healthcare provider for an examination rather than use an at-home test for HPV or other infections.
In my opinion (note I am not a medical professional), I would see a doctor for HPV testing until research proves home tests are as accurate as tests performed by a doctor. However, if you cannot, or will not, go to a doctor for an HPV test, then using an at-home test is certainly better than no testing at all. But make sure you pay close attention to the instructions!
Can you trust at-home tests for colorectal cancer?
The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 153,020 new cases of colorectal cancer in 2023 in the US. Sadly, they expect 52,550 deaths from colorectal cancer in 2023.
Although colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in the US, it is highly treatable if detected early. Screenings can find precancerous polyps – abnormal growths in the colon or rectum – that a doctor can remove before they turn into cancer. Additionally, screenings can help your doctor find colorectal cancer at an early stage when treatments work best.
Importantly, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends colorectal cancer screening for adults aged 45 to 75.
I’m sure you have heard about, or experienced, the unpleasant prepping for colonoscopies, when you clear out your bowels to allow your doctor to have a good look inside. Although this “prep” routine is no one’s idea of a good time, colonoscopies are the most commonly used screening for colorectal cancer. Colonoscopies, one of the most sensitive tests available, allow doctors to view your entire colon and rectum. Additionally, doctors can remove any polyps or other abnormal looking tissue, which can then be examined for signs of cancer or other disease.
However, colonoscopies also have limitations and come with a potential for harm. For instance, patients can experience bowel tears or bleeding. And colonoscopies can miss adenomas, potentially pre-cancerous benign growths.
Fortunately, there are other screening options, including flexible sigmoidoscopy, computed tomographic (CT) colonography, and stool tests.
Importantly, you should talk to your doctor about the type of test(s) best suited for your needs, and the recommended frequency of testing. The type of test best for you will depend on your personal preferences, your medical history, your family’s medical history, and the likelihood that you will get the test.
At-home colorectal screening tests.
Importantly, most cancerous tumors and some large adenomas bleed into the intestine at some point. This blood, which may be invisible to the naked eye, can be detected in stool (“poop”) with special tests.
There are three types of at-home high-sensitivity stool tests for colorectal cancer currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as follows:
- Guaiac FOBT (gFOBT) – this test uses a chemical to detect a component of hemoglobin, which is a blood protein in the stool.
- Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or immunochemical fecal occult blood test (iFOBT) – these tests use antibodies to detect hemoglobin shed by polyps or colorectal cancer.
- Multitarget stool DNA test (FIT-DNA) – this test detects trace amounts of blood and DNA from cancer cells in the stool.
These tests detect blood in the stool, which can be a sign of numerous conditions, including ulcers, hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease, and colon and rectal cancer. The FIT-DNA test also looks for DNA from cancer cells.
For each test, you use a stick or brush to obtain a small amount of your stool. For some tests, you send your sample to a lab or bring it to your doctor. But some tests provide a solution that allows you to get your results at home – within minutes!
Some at-home tests require a doctor’s prescription, while you can buy others at a pharmacy or online without a prescription.
These tests are easy to perform at home, without all the uncomfortable prep required for a colonoscopy. However, you may need to stop eating red meat or taking certain medications before an at-home test, so make sure you understand and follow the directions.
Note that if an at-home test comes back abnormal, you will likely need a colonoscopy to examine your colon and remove any polyps.
What are the pros and cons of at-home colorectal tests?
The pros of at-home tests are obvious – you don’t have to undergo the unpleasant prep before a colonoscopy, and you can take the test quickly and privately in your home.
Experts believe that annual screening with high-sensitivity stool tests, along with timely follow-up of abnormal results, will result in a reduction in colorectal cancer deaths similar to the results achieved by a lifetime of colonoscopy screenings.
However, you should also consider these negatives of at-home tests:
- The DNA stool test is less sensitive than colonoscopy at detecting precancerous polyps.
- At-home tests can fail to detect some polyps and cancers.
- You can receive false-positive results, which indicate a problem when none exists.
Simply put, these tests can miss the warning signs of colon cancer, which could mean you may miss out on life-saving early intervention treatments.
Additionally, using at-home stool tests means that you potentially miss the chance to have pre-cancerous polyps removed, well before they can become cancer.
Either way – get screened!
Most importantly, you should get screened to reduce your risk of developing life-threatening colon cancer – no matter which test you and your healthcare provider choose.
Can you trust at-home tests for prostate cancer?
Approximately, 1 out of 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime. Moreover, older men and non-Hispanic Black men are more likely to develop prostate cancer. For instance, about 60% of cases are diagnosed in men who are 65 or older, and it is rare in men under 40. Sadly, about 1 out of 41 men will die of prostate cancer.
Screenings for prostate cancer.
The standard screening for prostate cancer is a PSA blood test.
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein made by cells in the prostate gland. PSA is mostly found in semen, but a small amount is also found in blood. As the PSA level rises, the chance of having prostate cancer increases.
Importantly, there are many non-cancer related reasons for a rise in PSA levels, including an enlarged prostate, older age, an infection of the prostate, and certain medications.
On the other hand, there are some medications that can lower a PSA level, even if you have prostate cancer.
Simply put, PSA tests are not foolproof. You can have elevated PSA levels when you don’t have cancer, and normal PSA levels when you do have cancer.
In addition to a PSA test, your doctor may perform a digital rectal exam, during which he/she inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into your rectum to feel for bumps or hard areas that might be cancer.
At-home PSA tests for prostate cancer.
For at-home PSA tests, you prick your finger to collect a blood sample and send it to a lab for analysis.
Although these tests are easy to use, the American Cancer Society’s website states that PSA blood test results cannot indicate with certainty the presence or absence of prostate cancer. Since the results of any PSA test need a doctor’s interpretation, if you do an at-home PSA test, you must talk to your doctor about your results!
Interestingly, I could not find data on the accuracy of home PSA tests vs. in-office tests.
Abnormal PSA test results?
If you receive abnormal results from a PSA screening test, your doctor may order a different type of PSA test, or order an imaging test (such as an MRI or ultrasound), or perform a digital rectal exam (if not already done). These tests can help your doctor determine if you need a prostate biopsy.
Therefore, if you receive abnormal results, ask your doctor about your cancer risk and your possible need for further tests.
Should you get a PSA test?
Prostate cancer can be aggressive, so early detection is critical.
Although many primary care doctors routinely perform PSA tests for men over 50 years old, it’s not clear if the benefits of prostate cancer screening outweigh the risks for most men.
Therefore, discuss testing with your doctor before you agree to a PSA test in the office, or before using an at-home test. This is not a clear-cut, one size fits all test.
Importantly, the recommended frequency for prostate cancer screenings depends on your age, risk factors, and overall health. So, discuss the pros and cons of testing, along with the recommended frequency of testing, with your doctor.
Buying an at-home cancer test.
Clearly, you can have a degree of trust regarding at-home cancer tests. However, I urge you to discuss testing with your doctor before using at-home tests.
If you decide to use an at-home test, your doctor may have recommendations regarding which brand of tests to use. You can also do your own research. Either way, consider these factors to help you choose an easy-to-use, trustworthy test:
Look for companies that run their tests in quality labs that have received CAP-accredited and CLIA-certification.
Look for brands with a trustworthy reputation. Check Trustpilot, BBB (Better Business Bureau), and customer reviews.
Accuracy of results.
Look for data showing test result accuracy. And look for a company that uses board certified doctors to review and approve test results.
Clarity of information and instructions.
Use tests with clear and complete instructions that will reduce the risk of errors and specimen mishandling.
Look for a company with online or phone support to help you during the testing process.
Protect your privacy by using a company this is HIPAA compliant.
It’s overwhelming and scary to receive a cancer diagnosis. These posts can help you better manage your healthcare, which can improve your chances of a better outcome:
- What Should You Do When You Get a Cancer Diagnosis?
- How to Choose a Hospital for Cancer Treatment.
- Can Ethnicity and Race Impact Cancer Survival?
- Does Where You Live Impact Cancer Outcome? Sadly, Yes.
- What You Need to Know About Clinical Trials Before You Sign the Dotted Line.
- The Dangers of Stem Cell Clinics.