Your doctor may suggest a cancer screening to check for signs of early cancer -- or to look for things that could turn into it. A screening is a test that helps find a disease before you have any symptoms.
This screening process is helpful for a number of cancers, including:
You may be able to improve your outcome if you catch early signs and start treatment.
Still, there are pluses and minuses to different screenings. Your age, sex, genes, and overall health all make a difference.
It's not yet clear if screening for other cancers, such as ovaries, pancreas, prostate, and thyroid, help improve outcomes.
Talk to your doctor about the best screening plan for you.
Breast Cancer Screening
The standard screening test for breast cancer is called a mammogram. It uses X-rays to take a picture of the inside of your breast.
If you have greater chances of getting breast cancer because of your genes or other issues, you may also need to get an MRI, which uses radio waves to take pictures.
Different health organizations have their own guidelines about when women should get breast cancer screening. The CDC, for instance, says from ages 50 to 74, women at average risk should get a mammogram every 2 years, but from ages 40 to 49, women should talk to their doctor about the pros and cons of breast cancer screening.
The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, says all women should begin having yearly mammograms by age 45 and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55. And it says women should have the choice to start screening with yearly mammograms as early as age 40, if they want to.
Because there are differing recommendations, work with your doctor to figure out the best option for you.
No matter what your age, it's a good idea to get familiar with the way your breasts look and feel and to report any changes to your doctor.
Cervical Cancer Screening
This is cancer of the cervix, the small tunnel of tissue that connects a woman's vagina to her uterus (womb).
There are two main screening tests for cervical cancer:
Pap test (Pap smear). It looks for cancer cells or cell changes that might turn into cancer without the right treatment.
HPV test. It checks for certain types of the virus known as HPV, which might cause cell changes that turn into cancer.
Your doctor will scrape some cells and mucus from your cervix to use for the two tests.
Some general rules about screening for cervical cancer:
- It starts at age 21.
- From age 21 to 29, you'll get a Pap test. If it's normal, it may be OK to wait 3 years before your next one. Ask your doctor.
- From age 30 to 65, your doctor can decide whether you need a Pap test, HPV test, or both. Normal results could mean you wait up to 5 years for the next one.
- After 65, your doctor might suggest no more screening if your tests have been normal for a few years or you've had a hysterectomy -- surgery to remove the uterus and cervix.
Colon Cancer Screening
There are a number of screening tests for colon cancer:
Colonoscopy. Your doctor puts a flexible, lighted tube through your anus and into your rectum. A camera allows them to look for small growths (polyps) as well as for signs of cancer on your colon -- a part of the digestive system that's also called the large intestine. Your doctor can usually remove any suspicious growths to look at under the microscope.
Sigmoidoscopy. This works the same way as a colonoscopy, but doesn't go as deep into your colon.
Stool tests. These look for blood in your bowel movement, and sometimes for cell material (DNA) that has changed in a way that could be a sign of cancer. You may be able to collect the sample at home and return it to your doctor or testing lab.
Virtual colonoscopy. Your doctor might call it a CT colonography. A CT scan takes multiple X-rays, and computer software turns them into a picture of the inside of your colon. A doctor called a radiologist will talk to your medical team about what they mean.
If you get an abnormal result from a sigmoidoscopy, stool test, or virtual colonoscopy, your doctor will likely recommend that you get a colonoscopy.
Screening for colon cancer starts at age 50 for men and women. You may need to start screening at an earlier age if you have a family history of colon cancer or certain conditions that raise your odds of getting the disease. After 75, you and your doctor can decide whether you need to get a screening for colon cancer.
If you get a colonoscopy and you're not at high risk for colon cancer, your doctor may suggest you wait up to 10 years before your next one.
Lung Cancer Screening
Most people don't need screening for lung cancer. If your doctor suggests you get it, the only test is a low-dose CT scan that takes detailed pictures of your lungs. It takes just a few minutes and it doesn't hurt.
Lung cancer screening is only helpful if you have all of these:
- History of heavy smoking (pack a day for many years)
- Smoke now or quit in the last 15 years
- Are between ages 50 and 80