What if you could stop cancer right in its tracks? With regular screenings, you might be able to.
Cancer is typically easier to treat when it's caught in its early stages. And thanks to amazing researchers and advancements in technology, there are now many screening tools at our disposal that can detect even the earliest signs of cancer.
You've probably heard of a lot of these screenings, like colonoscopies and mammograms. But do you know when you should actually be having them?
Colorectal cancer screenings
For people at average risk for colorectal cancer, regular screening should begin at age 45, and we recommend they continue through age 75.
"Average" risk means that you do not have:
- A personal or family history of colorectal cancer
- A personal or family history of ovarian, uterine, gastric or breast cancer
- A personal history of certain types of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
- A personal history of receiving radiation to your pelvic area or abdomen (belly) as treatment for another cancer
- A hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome (a syndrome due to changes in certain genes that increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer, like Lynch syndrome or familiar adenomatous polyposis)
If you're at high risk for developing colorectal cancer, your physician may recommend starting regular colonoscopies earlier or continuing them for a few more years. It's not recommended that anyone over age 85 should be screened for colorectal cancer.
As long as there are no abnormalities or concerns after your first colonoscopy, you only need to get another one every 10 years.
However, if you're at high risk for developing colorectal cancer or new digestive issues come up that need monitoring, your physician may recommend having them more frequently.
There's some disagreement among the medical community, with major organizations — like the American Cancer Society, the American College of Radiology and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — having slightly differing opinions.
At the end of the day, most organizations agree that women should start regular mammograms between ages 40 to 50 and at average risk of developing breast cancer. However, if you're at high-risk for breast cancer, your physician might recommend starting regular mammograms a bit earlier.
"Average" risk means that you do not have:
- An abnormal breast cancer gene
- A personal history of breast cancer
- A first-degree relative (mother, daughter or sister) who has a history of breast or ovarian cancer
- A history of receiving radiation to your chest or breasts before age 30
As to when to stop screenings? Most guidelines recommend stopping after age 75. However, these guidelines are based on early studies performed at a time when life expectancy was lower than it is now, so you shouldn't stop your regular mammograms without talking to your provider first.
Prostate cancer screenings
There isn't one particular age where someone with a prostate should begin prostate cancer screenings, but they should start considering screening between ages 40 and 70.
There has been controversy in the medical community about prostate cancer screenings. While they are not bad for your health, they may be unnecessary for some people — and could cause worry and anxiety for no reason.
That being said, many people do benefit from prostate cancer screening, and we recommend that anyone with a prostate seriously consider screening between ages 55 and 70.
If you're Black, you should start sooner. Since Black people are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age and to have more severe prostate cancer, recommendations range from 40 to 45 for a starting age.
If you do choose to get screened, how often you need screenings will depend on the results of your first one.
Lung cancer screenings
If you're eligible for lung cancer screening, it's recommended that you get screened on a yearly basis. However, you won't necessarily need to be screened for the rest of your life.
Regular screenings may stop when someone:
- Turns 81
- Hasn't smoked in at least 15 years
- Develops a different health problem that would make them either unable or willing to have surgery if the screening did detect lung cancer
Pap smears and cervical cancer screenings
Starting at age 21, anyone with a cervix should receive regular Pap smears. "Regular" doesn't necessarily mean every year — depending on the results of the most recent test, your physician may decide that you only need one every three years.
It's important to get a Pap smear even if you are not sexually active. While most cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), there are rare cases where HPV is not the culprit. A Pap smear can find cell changes and detect abnormalities regardless of whether they stemmed from HPV.
Once you've turned 65, or if you have had a hysterectomy, talk to your physician about whether you need to keep up with regular Pap smears.
Regular HPV tests
If you are between the ages of 30 and 65, you should get tested for HPV — even if you've never had an abnormal Pap smear.
HPV tests are generally performed along with the Pap smear, which is called co-testing. If both results are normal, your physician may give you the go-ahead to wait five years until your next HPV test. However, in those five years, you still need to keep up with your Pap smears (every one to three years, depending on your provider's recommendation).
In general, it's not recommended that people younger than 30 get tested for HPV if they have had normal Pap smear results. HPV infections in this age group are very common, but most of them clear up without treatment and don't become cancerous.
Tip from Main Line Health providers: HPV prevention works even better if you combine screening with getting vaccinated!
Remember — everyone is a little different. These might be the general recommendations, but your physician may want you to get screened earlier, later or more frequently, depending on your health and medical history. Keep up with your annual physical with your primary care provider, and talk to your provider about which screenings tests are right for you.
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider
Learn more about cancer care at Main Line Health
Read about advanced technology for lung cancer diagnosis and treatment