Cancer screening tests can often save lives by finding cancer early, providing a vital heads-up before you might notice a lump or other worrisome symptoms. But it’s not always easy to know which screenings you need or when to get them, particularly since screening guidelines change.
“Cancer screenings don’t have one-size-fits-all guidelines,” said Francine Martis, MD, a family medicine physician at PeaceHealth Medical Group. “They typically have different recommendations based on things like age, family history or even personal preferences.”
One person who can help you sort through the maze of cancer guidelines is your primary care provider. “We can answer your questions, explain the various tests, and help determine a screening approach for cancer and other diseases that is right for you,” Dr. Martis said.
Women, in particular, would benefit from regular cancer screenings. The following cancers are the most common affecting women:
Breast cancer. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as well as the American College of Radiologists recommend breast cancer screening start at age 40. Determining the age to start having mammograms and their frequency should involve shared decision-making based on an individualized risk assessment.
Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. The pap test looks for pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately and the HPV test looks for the virus that can cause those cell changes.
Women aged 30-65 should have a pap plus an HPV test every five years. It is also acceptable to have a pap test alone every three years.
Colon cancer. Testing options (starting at age 50) include colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. Both are invasive and require prep work most people dislike. But they can find cancer, or the polyps (abnormal growths) that may become cancer, early, when treatment is often most successful. Noninvasive stool tests are another option, but they can’t detect polyps. And a positive result will probably require more tests, including a colonoscopy.
Your primary care provider knows your personal risk factors for cancer, such as your medical and family history, and those can influence when and how often you’re screened.
“With your provider’s help, you can make an informed decision about testing that’s right for you,” Dr. Martis said.