Cancer Screenings

Cancer Screenings Explained

What is a cancer screening?

A cancer screening is a test performed to look for abnormalities, such as cancer. For each type of cancer, research has shown at what age patients are most likely to get cancer. This is why age is the primary criteria for each type of screening. Age is not the only factor, however. Family history, race and exposure to certain chemicals also affect the likelihood that a person may get cancer. Your healthcare provider is the best person to help you decide when to get a cancer screening and what type of screening to have. There are, however, guidelines that determine when and how the average person should be screened, unless otherwise directed by their healthcare provider.

The role of family history and race

Family history can greatly influence someone’s risk of having cancer. The age guidelines listed above only apply to those of average risk. In order to determine at what age you will need to begin cancer screenings, you should have a conversation with your primary care provider many years before the average screening age. With breast cancer and colon cancer screenings this conversation should take place 10 years before you reach the age when your sibling or parent had cancer. Prostate cancer screenings may need to start as early as age 40, depending on family history.

Race is also a factor in cancer screenings. Colon cancer is more prevalent among African American men and those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. African American men are also more susceptible to prostate cancer. If you are a member of a vulnerable population, it is important to discuss screening ages with your primary care provider ten years before the average screening age.

Cancer Screening Guidelines

Colon Cancer Screenings

There are several methods of colon cancer screenings. In order to be screened for colon cancer you will need a referral appointment with your provider. At this appointment you and your provider can discuss which screening test is best for you.  Adults age 50 to 77 need to be screened for colon cancer. Adults age 76 to 85 should be evaluated by their healthcare provider to determine their screening needs. Colon cancer screenings can detect polyps, or growths inside the colon, that may eventually turn into cancer. These polyps can be removed as soon as they are detected, before they become cancerous. In this way colon cancer can be prevented.

Prostate Cancer Screenings

Prostate cancer screenings should begin at age 50. There are multiple screening methods. Some may be done by your primary care provider and some require a referral to another testing facility. You should make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss which type of screening is best for you.

Lung Cancer Screenings

Not all patients need lung cancer screenings. Most lung cancer screenings involve a CT lung scan, which takes pictures of the lungs. CT lung scans are usually done on patients between age 55 and 74 who have smoked a 30 pack-year (see below).

The 30 pack-year rule and the age guidelines are not absolute, however. It is important to discuss your smoking history with your primary care provider. For this reason, a lung cancer screening requires a preliminary referral appointment before the CT lung scan can be done.

Examples of a 30 Pack-year

  • Smoking a pack a day for 30 years
  • Smoking 2 packs a day for 15 years
  • Smoking 3 packs a day for 10 years

Breast Cancer Screenings

Mammograms are x-rays of the breast. They are the best way to detect the presence of breast cancer early, when it is easy to treat. Between ages 40 and 54, women should get a mammogram every year. At age 55 and above, women should get a mammogram every two years. A mammogram can be scheduled directly by the patient, without a doctor’s referral. For patients who cannot afford a mammogram, grant funds are available. If using grant funds for payment, a physician’s referral is required.

Cervical Cancer Screenings

“Cervical cancer screening (which is not synonymous with a pelvic exam) should begin at age 21 and continue at least until age 65. The most effective screening method is a pap smear in combination with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) testing. An annual well woman encounter, which may or may not include cervical cancer screening, is recommended for most adult women each year. Cervical cancer screening with a pap smear and HPV test is generally recommended every 3 to 5 years during a yearly well woman visit encounter, and the test timing depends on the patient’s age and risk factors. A well woman visit can be scheduled directly by the patient with a gynecologist or her primary care provider. A gynecologist is a provider who is trained specifically in women’s care, and can guide a patient’s cervical cancer screening test schedule, especially if the patient has had any abnormal tests in the past.”

Sheehan Cancer Center
Oncology/Hematology Department