While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent cancer, finding early signs can help doctors effectively treat the disease. Cancer screenings play an important role in this early detection, but the type of tests and screening schedule you have will depend on several important factors.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about your cancer risk and the screening tests you need. Having a plan in place can help keep you healthy and give you peace of mind.
Find a Screening Schedule That’s Right for You
There’s no one-size-fits-all screening regimen. Instead, your doctor will figure out how often to screen for cancer based on your:
- Family Health History
- Genetic Risks for Cancer
- Personal Health History
Keep in mind that some screening tests can have side effects or false-positive test results, which may lead to further tests. Be sure to talk with your doctor about all the risks involved with any cancer screening.
Cancer Screenings for Adolescents and Teens
Because childhood (pediatric) cancers are rare, doctors don’t typically recommend cancer screenings for children and teens. However, if a child has a genetic (inherited) risk of developing cancer, doctors may recommend regular checkups and tests to look for signs of cancer.
Cancer Screenings for Adults Age 21–49
Cervical Cancer Screening
Starting at age 21, the National Cancer Institute recommends women get regular pelvic exams and Pap tests to check for early signs of cervical cancer. These tests can also find early signs of other cancers of the female reproductive system (gynecologic cancer).
The recommendations include:
- Women ages 21–29 should have a Pap test screening every three years
- Women ages 30–65 should have a Pap/HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years
During a Pap test, your doctor will take a sample of cells from your cervix using a small scraper or brush. The cells are then examined in a lab for signs of cancer.
An HPV test looks for types of human papillomavirus (HPV) in cervical cells. HPV can cause cell abnormalities, which can lead to cancer. If an HPV test comes back positive, your doctor may recommend more regular cancer screenings.
Some women may need to start screening earlier or have more regular screenings if they have a higher cancer risk.
Breast Cancer Screening for Women Age 40–49
Breast cancer screening involves a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast tissue.
There are many differing opinions on when to start breast cancer screening, and screening guidelines vary from organization to organization. It’s important to have a conversation with your doctor about the pros and cons of mammogram screening and the risks involved with these tests.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women age 40–49 speak with their doctor about their risk factors and whether they need screening based on those risks. The decision of when to start screening will vary for each individual.
Cancer Screening for Adults Age 50+
Breast Cancer Screening for Women Age 50+
When to start breast cancer screening will depend on your risk factors and how you weigh the benefits and potential harms of screening.
The U.S. Preventive Services task force recommends women age 50–74 receive a mammogram every other year. However, you may need more regular screening if you’re at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Work closely with your doctor to develop a screening plan that’s right for you.
Colorectal Cancer Screening
Colonoscopies can find early signs of colorectal cancer and help stop the disease from developing altogether.
The National Cancer Institute recommends regular colonoscopies for men and women age 50–75. How often you undergo screenings will depend on your personal and family health history.
During a colonoscopy, your doctor will use a thin, lighted tube with a lens (colonoscope) to examine the rectum and colon. Your doctor will look for abnormal cell growths called polyps. These polyps have the potential to turn into cancer.
If your doctor finds polyps, he or she can usually remove them during the colonoscopy.
It’s important to talk with your doctor about a screening schedule that’s right for you. Depending on your cancer risk, you may need to start screening for colorectal cancer before age 50 or continue screening after age 75.
Prostate Cancer Screening
Like many other cancer screenings, when to start screening for prostate cancer will depend entirely on your overall cancer risk.
While there’s no standard screening guideline for prostate cancer, men age 50 and older should talk with their doctor about the risks and benefits of screening and whether they should be tested for signs of prostate cancer.
If you have a family history of prostate cancer or are African American, the American Cancer Society recommends starting the conversation with your doctor at age 45.
A prostate cancer screening can include a digital rectal exam (DRE) to check for lumps on the prostate and a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test to check your PSA level, or both.
Lung Cancer Screening
Although it’s a relatively recent practice, lung cancer screening has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer in heavy smokers age 55–74. A heavy smoker is someone who smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or more.
Lung cancer screening involves using chest x-rays or low-dose spiral CT (LDCT) scans to look for signs of disease.
Talk With Your Doctor About Cancer Screenings
It’s important to remember that a cancer screening schedule is different for every individual. Don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor about your concerns and questions about cancer screening and prevention. Together, you can work to find the right screening schedule for you, so that you can stay healthy longer.