Here’s When You Should Be Screened for the Most Common Cancers

Photo:  Camil Zahner (Shutterstock)
Photo: Camil Zahner (Shutterstock)

Most of us don’t want to think about cancer when we feel fine and there’s a new season of Ted Lasso out, but talking to your doctor and getting screened (aka “thinking about cancer”) can reduce your risk significantly. There are more than 200 types of cancer, ranging in severity from “you’ll probably be fine” 97%-survival-rate cancers like testicular cancer to “get your affairs in order” cancers like mesothelioma. While science is making great progress toward treating this terrible suite of diseases, early detection remains one of the most powerful weapons we have. Below is a guide to when you should be screened for the most common types of cancers, based on the recommendations of the American Cancer Society.

These are across-the-board screening recommendations, so these tests only detect a few common kinds of cancer. We are all individuals, so how often you should be screened for what kind of cancer is also based on your health history and other risk factors—talk to your doctor about your concerns.

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Recommended cancer screenings for people ages 21 to 29

Skin cancer: You are your own early test for skin cancer. No matter your age, you should check your skin for weird bumps, moles, and other unpleasantness on a regular basis, maybe once a month, and continue for the rest of your life. Bring up any concerns to your doctor or a dermatologist. Here’s an in-depth guide to how to perform a skin cancer self-check. Some organizations like the Skin Cancer Foundation advise getting an annual check from a doctor, but there is no official recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Colon cancer: If you are at a higher than average risk for colon cancer because of a family history of the disease, a genetic disorder, or other factors, you may need to be screened for colon cancer in your 20s. Talk to your doctor about what kind of test is right for you. If you don’t have high risk factors, a screening probably isn’t necessary until you’re older.

Breast cancer: If you are at higher than average risk for breast cancer, talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened, but if you’re not, you can skip the mammogram—for now.

Cervical cancer: If you have a cervix, you should be checked for cervical cancer beginning at 25 years old. According to the American Cancer Society, you should have a primary HPV test done every five years thereafter. If that’s not available, you should have a pap test every three years.

Recommended cancer screenings for people ages 30 to 39

Colon cancer: If you’re not at high risk, you can still put off the colon cancer screening in your 30s, but talk to your doctor to make sure.

Breast cancer: Unless you’re at high risk, you probably don’t need to be tested for breast cancer in your 30s, but talk to your doctor.

Cervical cancer: Continue getting tested every three to five years, depending on the kind of test.

Recommended cancer screenings for people ages 40 to 49

Colon cancer: For most people, your 40s are when the cancer screenings really get going. The recommended age for your first colon cancer screening is 45, unless you’re at a higher risk. This is a change from earlier recommendations of 50 years old. As for how often and what kind of test, it depends on your individual risk factors. For some people, it’s a once-a-decade thing with a stool test. For others, it’s more frequent colonoscopies. Talk to your doctor, and check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information.

Breast cancer: According to the American Cancer Society, “women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so.” Once you’re 45, you should get a mammogram every year.

Cervical cancer: Continue to get checked every five or three years, depending on the kind of test and your individual risk factors.

Recommended cancer screenings for people ages 50 to 64

Colon cancer: Continue to be tested for colon cancer regularly, according to your doctor’s recommendation.

Lung cancer: Whether you should be tested for lung cancer depends on whether and how much you smoked. If you smoke now, or quit recently, you should probably get tested. If you have a 20 pack-year smoking history (i.e., you smoked a pack a day for 20 years), you should probably get tested. Talk to your doctor (and your insurance company—they don’t always cover this) about whether a lung cancer test is a good idea.

Breast cancer: Generally, people with breasts should have a mammogram every year for the first half of their 50s. After you turn 55, you may be able to cut it down to one every other year, depending on your individual risk factors.

Cervical cancer: Keep on getting checked every three to five years, cervix-havers.

Prostate cancer: If you have a prostate, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of testing for prostate cancer so you can decide if you want to be tested for it.

Recommended cancer screenings for people ages 65 and older

Lung cancer: Whether it’s recommended that you test for lung cancer depends on your smoking history.

Breast cancer: Depending on your risk factors, you may need a mammogram every two years, but you can choose to have them more often if you’d like.

Cervical cancer: Good news! If you’ve been regularly testing for cervical cancer with normal results for the last 10 years, you can stop getting tested for cervical cancer when you’re 65.

Prostate cancer: If there’s a good cancer (and there isn’t), it would be prostate cancer. It generally grows slowly, isn’t life threatening, and often doesn’t cause harm, so being tested for it is a personal decision. According to the American Cancer Society, “Men who can expect to live at least 10 more years should talk with a health care provider” about the pros and cons of prostate screening. That’s some coldhearted math, but cancer is not sentimental.

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