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How Often Should You Get Screened for Cancer?
Cancer screenings are a vital part of preventative care. These tests help find cancer early on when the chances for successfully treating the disease are greatest.
Find out which cancer screenings are right for you, based on age, gender and family history.
Types of Cancer Screenings
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force and the Centers for Disease Control support screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal or colon cancer and lung cancer. That said, there are other tests for less common cancers.
Each form of cancer requires a different type of screening. With this, it also requires a different frequency of testing.
Breast Cancer Screening
Beginning at age 25, women should have a clinical breast exam done every one to three years. Women between 40 to 49 years old should talk to their doctor about when to start screening and how often to get mammograms.
A mammogram is a breast X-ray and is the most effective way to detect breast cancer early. Women over the age of 40 years old should have a mammogram done at least every year.
Cervical Cancer Screening
Two screening tests help prevent or detect cervical cancer or find it early:
- The Pap smear looks for cell changes on the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer if not treated
- The HPV test looks for the virus that could cause this type of cellular change
Women should start getting Pap or HPV tests at age 21. If your Pap smear result is normal, you only need to get screened every three years.
Both tests can be done in a doctor's office or at a clinic. During the Pap smear, the doctor cells to send to a laboratory. An HPV test can occur at the same time by collecting cells and testing for the virus.
Colorectal cancer usually develops from precancerous polyps in the colon or the rectum. Screening tests can detect precancerous polyps, so they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Regular screening should start at age 50 and is the key to preventing colorectal cancer. Several colorectal cancer screening tests are available including stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy and CT colonography.
The guaiac-based fecal occult blood test uses the chemical guaiac to detect blood in the stool. It is done annually with a test kit you receive from your doctor.
In the privacy of your home, you use a stick or brush to take a small stool sample. You then return the test kit to the doctor or a lab.
The doctor inserts a short, thin tube into your rectum. The doctor checks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and the lower third of the colon. This test is recommended every five to 10 years.
A colonoscopy is similar to flexible sigmoidoscopy, except the doctor checks throughout the entire colon. During the test, the doctor removes most polyps and some cancers. A colonoscopy is also used as a follow-up test if anything unusual is found during one of the other screening tests.
You should schedule this test every 10 years.
CT Colonography (Virtual Colonoscopy)
Computed tomography colonography, also called a virtual colonoscopy, uses X-rays and computers to produce images of the entire colon. These are displayed on a computer screen for the doctor to analyze.
Doctors recommend scheduling this test every five years.
A yearly lung cancer screening is best for people who:
- Have a been heavy smokers
- Currently smoke or quit only within the last 15 years
- Are between 55 and 80 years old
There is one screening test for lung cancer. It uses low-dose computed tomography to scan the longs. The doctor can then analyze the produced image.
Screening for prostate cancer begins with a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which is a type of blood test. This test measures the PSA levels in the blood. The higher the level of PSA in the blood, the higher the risk of prostate cancer.
Beginning at age 45, men should speak with their doctor about this test. Your PSA levels will indicate how often you should test for prostate cancer.
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