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If you can’t prevent cancer, the next best thing is to catch it early. You do that by getting the recommended screening for your age and other demographics. If you get a colonoscopy, for example, doctors can remove a polyp before it even becomes cancer. Or if you get your regular mammogram and they find cancer in the early stages, then it’s easier to cure it. There are Pap smear tests for cervical cancer, and CT scans to look for lung cancer in previous or current smokers. The earlier you catch something, the more likely you are to cure it. In the years I have been treating cancer patients, I have seen screening become much more sensitive and much more specific.
Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, Director, University of Colorado Cancer Center
The goal of cancer screening is to help people live longer and better. Cancer screening is used to find cancer in its early stages, before symptoms appear. Cancers that are detected early generally have the greatest chance for successful treatment or cure. By the time cancer symptoms are present, the disease may have grown and spread to other parts of the body, making it more difficult to treat or cure.
Screening tests don’t usually diagnose cancer, but if results from a test are abnormal, this lets a clinician know that further tests to check for cancer might be needed.
There is no need to worry if a clinician recommends cancer screening. Actually, they recommend screening based on criteria for who might benefit, particularly if you have no symptoms and feel great screening is vital.
Different cancer screening is recommended depending on a person’s age, sex, family history, and smoking history. Also, certain gene mutations have been linked to cancer, as well as exposure to cancer-causing agents.
The following cancer screenings are recommended for those with average risk of cancer. It’s important to discuss cancer screening with a clinician, because some cancer screenings are used more commonly for people who have certain risk factors. Other screenings are recommended for people at certain ages.
These screening guidelines come from the American Cancer Society and were last updated in August 2022.
Beginning at age 40, women of average breast cancer risk should discuss mammograms with their clinician and be offered the choice of having them annually, in addition to a yearly clinical breast exam. At age 45, women of average risk should begin getting mammograms every year. After age 55, the recommendation drops to get a mammogram every other year and continues as long as a woman is in good health and expected to live for at least 10 more years.
There are several types of screening tests for colorectal cancer, but one of the most common is a colonoscopy, in which a physician uses a scope to examine the inside of the colon. People of average cancer risk are advised to get a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 45.
→ In 2021, the recommended colorectal cancer screening age lowered to 45 for people at average risk
There also are screening tests in which a person’s stool or blood is tested, which generally are recommended every year once you are 45.
A person should continue screening for colorectal cancer until they are 75. Between the age of 75 and 85, talk with your health care clinician to determine if it would be beneficial to continue.
Because there are several types of screening tests for colorectal cancer, it is a good idea to talk with your clinician to discuss which one might be best for you.
The recommended screening tests for cervical cancer are human papillomavirus (HPV) tests and Pap tests, which a clinician may recommend separately or in combination. Regardless of the test, it is important to test regularly.
Beginning at age 25, women are advised to have a Pap test every three years, or a Pap/HPV co-test every five years. After the age of 65, if all test results in the previous 10 years have come back normal, testing can stop.
Even if you’ve been vaccinated against HPV, it’s still important to discuss cervical cancer screening with your clinician.
If you are 50 or older and are a current or former smoker with least a 20 pack-year smoking history – a pack-year is the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day multiplied by the number of years a person smoked – ask your clinician about annual low-dose CT scans to screen for early lung cancer. Screening may benefit you if you’re a current smoker or have quit within the past 15 years.
In addition to the cancer screening tests listed above, which are recommended by the American Cancer Society and other organizations, there are some additional cancer screening tests that might be of interest to you. However, the data used to recommend these screenings do not warrant firm recommendations.
For men of average risk, beginning at age 50 ask your clinician about prostate cancer screening, which may include a digital rectal exam or prostate-specific antigen blood test.
Research has shown that Black men and men with a family history of prostate cancer are at higher risk and should receive screening at 45.
Starting at age 18, ask your clinician about receiving a total body skin exam. Some people may benefit from mole mapping, in which a physician takes periodic photos to document skin changes over time.
Each person is different, with different histories, risk factors, and other concerns about cancer. It’s important to have open conversations with your primary care clinician about your individual needs and you may consider asking: