When it comes to your health, being proactive is key—and that’s especially true for cancer prevention. Regular cancer screening can help you and your doctor catch and treat any abnormalities at an early stage, when it can be easier to treat or cure.
But many patients have questions about how to make sure they get the screenings they need. Which screenings are recommended? How often are screenings needed? And how do screenings feel? Below, we’ve answered the most common screening questions to help you know what to screen for and when, and what to expect—so that you can take the proper steps to ensure you’re doing the most to protect your health and wellbeing.
Which cancer screenings are recommended?
The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings for breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, cervical cancer and prostate cancer. They also recommend endometrial cancer and lung cancer screenings for those who are at a higher risk of developing those cancers.
How often do I need cancer screenings?
Below are general guidelines for different screenings. It’s important to remember, however, that guidelines for cancer screenings are a little different for everyone. It’s best to talk with your doctor about exactly what is right for you.
- People between the ages of 20 and 40 should screen for skin cancer (including a skin examination) every three years. If you have a history of skin cancer, or have any suspicious moles or other spots, talk with your provider about how frequently you should be screening.
- People age 40 and older should screen for skin cancer yearly.
It’s a good idea to talk to your provider about how often you should get screened for skin cancer. While you can see your primary care physician for your skin cancer screenings, you can also perform a self-examination on a monthly basis.
- Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms—x-rays of the breast—if they wish to do so.
- Women ages 45 to 54 should get yearly mammograms.
- After 55, women can choose to get a mammogram every other year, or can continue yearly screenings
If you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, your doctor might recommend starting screenings when you turn 40. It’s important to note how your breasts normally look and feel so that you can report any changes to your health care provider as soon as possible.
Colon and rectal cancer
- People with an average risk of developing colon cancer between ages 45 and 75 should get regular screenings. This can be done either with a sensitive test that looks for signs of cancer in a person’s stool, or with an exam that looks at the colon and rectum, such as a colonoscopy. Talk with your provider about which test might be right for you.
- After age 75, you should continue regular screenings if you’re in good health.
People over 85 should no longer get colorectal cancer screening.
- Women between ages 21 to 65 should get a Pap smear every three years. A Pap smear, also known as a Pap test, is used to screen for cervical cancer and involves collecting cells from your cervix—the lower, narrow end of your uterus that’s at the top of your vagina.
- Women age 30 and older can consider Pap testing every five years if the procedure is combined with testing for the presence of HPV. They can also consider getting tested for HPV instead of doing the Pap test. HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus that can lead to the development of genital warts, abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer.
Remember, the most important thing to remember is to get screened regularly, no matter which test or combination of tests you get. Additionally, If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend more-frequent Pap smears, regardless of your age.
- Starting at age 50, most men should talk to their health care provider about whether or not screening is right for them.
- If you are African American or have a father or brother who had prostate cancer before age 65, you should have this talk with a health care provider starting at age 45.
The American Cancer Society recommends that men make an informed decision with a health care provider about whether to be tested for prostate cancer. Because research has not yet proven that the potential benefits of testing outweigh the harms of testing and treatment, it is recommended that men are not tested without first learning about the risks and possible benefits of testing and treatment.
- At the time of menopause, all women should be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer. Women should report any unexpected vaginal bleeding or spotting to their doctors.
- Those who are 50 to 80 years old and in fairly good health, currently smoke or have quit in the past 15 years, and those who have at least a 20 pack-year smoking history should have yearly lung cancer screenings. To calculate your pack-year smoking history, multiply the number of packs of cigarettes per day by the number of years smoked.
How else can I reduce my risk of developing certain kinds of cancers?
In addition to getting the regular screenings you need, healthy lifestyle choices—including diet and exercise—can affect your overall health as well as your risk of developing cancer and other serious diseases. Here are some healthy lifestyle changes you can make at any age to help lower your cancer risk.
Don’t Use Tobacco
Smoking has been linked to many various types of cancer—including cancer of the lung, mouth, throat, larynx, pancreas, bladder, cervix and kidney. Chewing tobacco has been linked to cancer of the oral cavity and pancreas. Unfortunately, there is no safe form of tobacco. In fact, even if you don’t use tobacco, exposure to secondhand smoke might increase your risk of lung cancer. Because both using tobacco products and being exposed to tobacco smoke can cause cancer as well as many other health problems, avoiding tobacco—or deciding to stop using it—is an important part of cancer prevention. If you don’t use tobacco products, you can help others by encouraging the people around you to quit. To learn more about quitting, call The American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for help.
Maintain a healthy weight and exercise routine
Maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk of various types of cancer. Physical activity, in addition to helping you control your weight, may also help lower the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.
While any amount of physical activity will bring you a certain degree of health benefits, you should strive for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. In general, 30 minutes of physical activity a day is a great goal to begin.
Eat a healthy diet
Following a healthy dietary pattern may reduce your risk of cancer as well. Consider basing your diet on fruits, vegetables and other foods from plant sources—such as whole grains and beans. You may also consider limiting your consumption of processed meats—according to a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, eating large amounts of processed meat can slightly increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
Limit your alcohol intake
If you do choose to drink alcohol, it’s best to do so in moderation. The risk of various types of cancer—including cancer of the breast, colon, lung, kidney and liver—increases with the amount of alcohol you drink and the length of time you’ve been drinking regularly. If you do drink, it’s recommended to have no more than 1 drink per day for women, or 2 per day for men. One drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
Research regarding cancer prevention and cancer screenings is continuously evolving, which means that these guidelines are subject to change over time. To make sure you have access to the most up-to-date research and guidelines, either chat with your provider or visit the American Cancer Society website.
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