Being Proactive About Your Health

When Should I Get My Cancer Screenings? A Guide by Age

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Many of us put off doctors’ appointments and routine health exams. But being proactive about your health can prevent serious issues from developing down the line. Case in point: Cancer screenings.

“The sooner we catch a cancer, generally, the better the outcome,” says Dawn Severson, M.D., a medical oncologist with Henry Ford Health System.

Of course, every cancer is different, and certain types are more likely to affect a person at various stages of life. Individual factors such as a family history of cancer, genetics or gender can also affect the recommended age to begin screenings.

Below, Dr. Severson outlines the standard recommendations for the average at-risk person for five common types of cancer.

Colon Cancer

Age To Start Screening: 45-50

Frequency: Every 5-10 years (depending on screening type)

The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that screenings begin at age 50 for average risk individuals. The American Cancer Society recently updated their recommendation to begin by age 45.

Unlike other cancers, there are a variety of screening options for colon cancer including colonoscopy, CT Colonography (a.k.a. a virtual colonoscopy, which should take place every five years), Fecal Immunochemical Testing (to be administered every year) and Cologuard testing (administered every three years). The American Cancer Society recommends that the average at-risk person continues regular screenings until life expectancy is less than 10 years, or roughly to age 75.

Related Topic: How to Get (Mentally & Physically) Colonoscopy Ready

Breast Cancer

Age To Start Screening: 40

Frequency: Every 1-2 years

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, we recommend regular mammograms begin at age 40, unless there is a family history or personal risk for breast cancer, in which case screening may begin sooner. The American Cancer Society advocates for women between the age of 40-44 to have the choice to start annual mammograms if they wish to do so, and women 45-54 should do so yearly. Women 55 and older should continue with mammograms every 1-2 years.

Bottom line: At the very latest, breast cancer screenings should begin by age 50, Dr. Severson says. If you have a family history of breast cancer, screening should certainly start at 40, and perhaps even earlier depending on that history, she adds. If you know you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, screening recommendations may differ, and should be directed by your health care provider.

Related Topic: How to Prepare (Mentally & Physically) for a Mammogram

Prostate Cancer

Age To Start Screening: Varies. For average risk men, discussions with their doctor should begin at age 50.

Frequency: Every year or two, depending on the results of a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test.

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, we follow the American Cancer Society recommendations for prostate screening. The ACS suggests that discussions about a prostate cancer screening should begin at age 50 for average risk men. Men at high risk (a group that includes men with a family history of prostate cancer, BRCA gene mutations and African American men) should begin screening between the ages of 40 and 45.

Lung Cancer

Age To Start Screening: 55

Frequency: Varies

In the U.S., 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths are related to cigarette smoking. Consequently, the need for a lung cancer screening depends on a person’s history of smoking. High-risk patients are those between ages 55 and 74 and who have a smoking history equivalent to a pack a day for 30 years and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. While scans can be helpful in detecting cancer, the best way to lower your risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking.

Cervical Cancer

Age To Start Screening: 20-21.

Frequency: Every 3 years (if results are normal).

A Pap test is the most common method of screening for cervical cancer. An HPV test, which looks for the human papillomavirus that can lead to cancer, is also often administered. For most women, cervical cancer screenings are recommended up through the age of 65.

Amidst our busy schedules, making time for a cancer screening may be a low priority, but Dr. Severson says, patients rarely regret getting screened. “I’ve never met a cancer survivor who had a cancer found early who was upset that they had the testing done,” Dr. Severson says. “In fact, they usually become our biggest advocates for screenings.”

Learn more about cancer screenings at Henry Ford or talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. Schedule an appointment online or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Dawn Severson is a board-certified medical oncologist and member of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute seeing patients at Henry Ford Macomb Health Center in Shelby Township and Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township.