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Cancer screening is an essential step in early cancer detection and can provide patients with one of the most critical aspects of treatment – time.

When to get screened for cancer depends on a multitude of factors, including age, the type of cancer, personal health and family history. The American Cancer Society publishes recommended guidelines for the most common types of cancer that can benefit from early detection. Some cancers, like pancreatic cancer, are often fatal regardless of when they are detected, canceling out the benefits of screening. It is important to note that all screening recommendations are continuously updated as we learn more about cancer and cancer treatment.

Additionally, cancer screenings can present a risk to those in fragile states of health, and too much screening increases the likelihood of over-diagnosis and the treatment of nonthreatening types of cancer. Your primary care provider is the best source to determine what types of cancer screening and their frequency would be most beneficial for your situation.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer found in women. In the U.S., one out of every eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age; however, breast cancer can occur at any age.

Women of average risk for breast cancer should get annual mammograms between the ages of 45 to 54. Patients can start yearly screenings at age 40 if they wish. At 55, breast cancer screening can be reduced to every other year, but women should continue with regular screening for as long as they remain in good health with a life expectancy of ten years or more.

Women who are at a higher risk of breast cancer, such as those with a family history or who received chemotherapy earlier in life, should start annual screening at age 30. In some cases, a doctor may recommend having a breast MRI as well.

Colorectal (Colon) Cancer

Adults between the ages of 45 and 75 with an average cancer risk should undergo regular cancer screenings for colon cancer. How often a cancer screening is needed depends on the test type.

There are four types of colon cancer screenings:

  • A colonoscopy is a visual examination of the entire colon during which some polyps and cancers can be removed. Performed every ten years.
  • Stool tests can either be a DNA test such as Cologuard or a FOBT which looks for blood in the stool. Screening should be conducted every one to three years, depending on the type of stool test.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy, a visual examination of the lower third of the colon, which is performed every five years
  • CT colonography, an x-ray of the colon, is performed every five years.

Which cancer screening is best depends on patient preference and cancer risk. Your primary care doctor can advise you on the best choice.

A family history of cancer, certain bowel diseases and genetic conditions can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Patients with a higher risk should work with their doctor to create a personalized testing plan.

People between 75 and 84 should be tested based on their preferences and health with the consultation of their doctor. Patients 85 and older should no longer get screenings.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is typically diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. Patients with an average risk should begin routine screening between the ages of 21 and 25 and continue with regular screenings until age 65.

A PAP smear has been the standard of cervical cancer screening for decades and should be conducted every three years. However, HPV tests are becoming more common and are even recommended in place of or in addition to PAP tests. Research has shown that HPV (human papillomavirus) is responsible for almost all forms of cervical cancer.

Women 65 and older should consult their doctor to see if they should continue regular screening. Patients who have received abnormal results in the past or did not undergo routine screening may be advised to continue with screening for longer.

People at a higher risk of cervical cancer, along with other issues like HIV positive, weakened immune system, or a history of cervical cancers, may have different screening recommendations and should consult with their doctor.

Lung Cancer

People between 50 and 80 who smoke or used to smoke and have a 20-pack-year history are advised to get yearly CT scans. A pack-year is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes a day for a year.

At this time, cancer screening recommendations for lung cancer only apply to people with a history of smoking. There are currently no recommendations for people with a history of secondhand smoke exposure, but research in this area is ongoing.