The Lifesaving Power of Cancer Screenings

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

It's easy to put off screening tests for cancer. We all have excuses - we're too busy, we don't have a family history of cancer (so we must not be at high risk), etc. Also, some tests are just plain yucky.

But all of those excuses (or any others) pale in comparison to this simple truth: cancer screenings save lives. The best chance of surviving any cancer is to find it early-before symptoms start and when it's easiest to treat.

Talk to your primary care provider about what screening tests are appropriate for you and when you should get them. Then, ditch any excuses you might have to skip a test and make an appointment to get screened.

Meanwhile, here is a quick look at five common cancer screenings. Which ones you might need will depend on your age, gender, family history, and health history. You can also download our cancer screening guide for more information on the latest screening guidelines and tips for remembering to get screened.

Breast Cancer

If you're at average risk of developing breast cancer, how often you should be screened is determined by your age. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends:

  • Women 40 to 44: Talk with your physician about beginning screening-you have the option of getting a mammogram every year if you choose.

  • Women 45 to 54: Get a mammogram once a year.

  • Women 55 and Older: An annual mammogram-or one every two years if you prefer-is recommended (as long as you're in good health and are expected to live at least 10 or more years).

If you're at high risk of developing breast cancer, you should get a mammogram and an MRI every year beginning at age 30. Factors that would put you at high risk include a family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation associated with breast cancer, or a history of radiation to the chest.

Cervical Cancer

Regular screenings with a Pap test-done at your annual visit with your gynecologist-can detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages. A Pap test can even find precancerous cells that can be treated before they become cancer.

Current ACS guidelines recommend that:

  • Women 21 to 29 have a Pap test (also called a Pap smear) every three years.

  • Women 30 to 65 get both a Pap test and an HPV (human papillomavirus) test every five years or a Pap test alone every three years. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.

Some women may need more frequent screenings, specifically those with weakened immune systems (for example, as a result of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), an organ transplant, or long-term steroid use).

Colorectal Cancer

There are several types of tests used to screen for colorectal cancer. Some, like stool tests, mainly find cancer after it has developed. Others, such as a colonoscopy, can find both polyps (abnormal growths) and cancer. If polyps are found during screening, they can be removed, which reduces the risk of developing cancer in the future. Screenings that look for both polyps and cancer are recommended.

If you're an adult at average risk for colorectal cancer, the ACS recommends that you begin screening at age 45 while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends beginning screening at age 50. Your primary care provider can help you decide which screening test is best for you, how often you need to be screened, and when to begin.

If you're at high risk-for instance, if you have a family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease-you may need to start screening earlier or be screened more often. Talk to your primary care provider about your risks.

Lung Cancer

A low-dose CT scan can catch lung cancer in its early stages when treatment can often provide the best outcome.

Talk to your primary care provider about screening if you meet the following criteria:

  • You're between the ages of 55 and 77.

  • You have a history of smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.

  • You still smoke, or you quit smoking less than 15 years ago.

Skin Cancer

Checking your skin for changes in moles or other marks can help find skin cancer early, particularly for people at high risk of the disease. The ACS recommends:

  • Getting a skin exam from your doctor during check-ups.

  • Examining your skin on your own once a month. Check your entire body and use a hand mirror for hard-to-see areas (like your back and behind your ears). Call your primary care provider if you notice anything different about your moles or blemishes.

A Free Guide to Better Health

At Fox Chase Cancer Center, we want to help you stay up to date on the latest screening guidelines. You can do that with our cancer screening guide, which you can download for free. You can also use the guide to keep track of when you were last screened for some of the most common cancers.