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As a medical oncologist and hematologist, I get a lot of questions from patients and their families about screenings. A cancer screening is a test where a doctor checks your body for cancer cells. Regular screenings can help catch early signs of cancer so you can get the treatment you need, when you need it.

It’s normal to wonder what you can do to make sure that you and your loved ones are getting the screenings you need. Patients often ask me which screenings are recommended, how often screenings are needed and how screenings feel. I’ve answered the most common questions patients ask to help you know what to expect and give you peace of mind.

Which cancer screenings are recommended?

Right now, the American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings for breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, cervical cancer and prostate cancer. They also recommend endometrial cancer and lung cancer screenings for those who are at a higher risk of developing those cancers.

Who performs cancer screenings?

Many cancer screenings are done by a primary care doctor during regular wellness check-ups. Our primary care doctors work closely with oncologists and other specialists to make sure that you’re getting the recommended screenings based on your age. If you have questions about which screenings you need, just ask your doctor. They’ll listen to your concerns, answer your questions and provide guidance.

How often do I need cancer screenings?

Guidelines for cancer screenings are a little different for everyone. While it’s best to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

  • Breast cancer screenings – Women age 45 to 54 should get yearly mammograms. After age 55, women can choose to have a mammogram every other year. Or they can continue yearly screenings. If you have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, your doctor might recommend starting screenings when you turn 40.
  • Cervical cancer screenings – A Pap test is used to screen for cervical cancer. Women between ages 21 and 29 should get a Pap test every three years. From ages 30 to 65, it’s recommended to get a Pap test and a human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years.
  • Colon cancer screenings – People with an average risk of developing colon cancer should get regular screenings between ages 45 and 75. Your doctor will let you know how often you’ll need a colon cancer screening.
  • Prostate cancer screenings – Doctors are still researching how effective prostate cancer screenings are. Most men should talk to their doctor at age 50 about whether a screening is right for them.
  • Lung cancer screenings – Lung cancer screenings are recommended for people age 55 to 74 who currently smoke or have a history of smoking. Before getting screened, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of a screening. They’ll help you decide if it’s right for you.

If you’re at a higher risk of developing cancer, you may want to start getting annual screenings earlier than the average recommended age. Talk to a doctor if you’re unsure when to start; they’ll provide recommendations and help you schedule a screening, if needed.

How do I know if I’m at a higher risk of developing cancer?

Even though risk factors vary depending on the type of cancer, there are some common things that might put you at a higher risk such as your age, weight, tobacco use and family history.

  • Age – Our risk of developing many different types of cancer increases as we age. If you’re in your forties or older, it might be time to ask about cancer screenings. Take a look at the American Cancer Society’s screening recommendations by age to make sure you’re getting the right care for your age.
  • Weight – Being overweight can also increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer. Losing even a small amount of weight, like 10% of your bodyweight, can help reduce your risk and improve your overall health.
  • Tobacco use – Using tobacco in any form also increases your risk of some cancers. If you use tobacco, work on quitting. Talk to your primary care doctor to let them know you’re trying to quit. They can give you resources and support.
  • Family history of cancer – Sometimes, cancer can be passed down through genes. Having a history of cancer in your family doesn’t mean that you will develop cancer, but it does put you at a higher risk.

Is genetic testing available for cancer genes?

In some cases, our likelihood of cancer is linked to our genes and can be passed down through family members. If you have a family history of cancer, you might consider meeting with a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors can help assess your risk and determine if you’re a good candidate for genetic testing to check for gene mutations that are linked to cancer development.

While genetic testing can’t predict whether you’ll develop cancer, it can tell you if you’re at a higher risk. This information will help you get the cancer screenings you need and increase your chance of early detection.

I don’t have a family history of cancer, why do I need a cancer screening?

Even though a family history of cancer increases your risk, it’s possible for anyone to develop cancer during their lifetime. Cancer screenings are recommended because there’s evidence that early diagnosis can lead to a better treatment outcomes. In some cases, like with breast cancer, cancer can be cured completely if caught early.

There is a history of cancer in my family. How can I make sure I’m getting the screenings I need?

If there’s a history of cancer in your family, you might be at a higher risk of cancer. It’s important to let your doctor know about the change in your family history so they can adjust their recommendations based on your current needs.

The urgency of your next screening depends on how long it is until your next checkup. If you have a wellness visit coming up, it’s probably fine to wait until that appointment. You can contact your doctor to let them know you’d like to add the screening to your appointment.

If you don’t have a wellness visit scheduled, or if you’re not due for a checkup for many months, it’s a good idea to schedule a screening.

Do cancer screenings hurt?

While some screenings, like lung cancer screenings, are painless, others can cause feelings of discomfort or mild pain. Doctors and nurses do their best to keep you as comfortable as possible during screenings. And it’s important to remember that these screenings are an important part of maintaining your overall health and helping you find peace of mind.

Are cancer screenings covered by my insurance?

Most health insurance plans cover cancer screenings that are necessary based on current screening guidelines. If you’re not sure what your insurance covers, call the number on the back of your insurance card for help.

What happens if cancer is found during the screening?

A cancer diagnosis is scary and overwhelming, but knowing is the first step toward the treatment you need. If your doctor sees something concerning during a screening, they will guide you through the next steps. Depending on the condition you might see an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer, or another type of medical specialist. No matter what type of doctor you see, they will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan and guide you through every step of treatment and recovery.

Where can I find more information about cancer screening guidelines?

Doctors are continuously researching cancer treatments and cancer prevention. As we learn more about how cancer develops, cancer screening guidelines may change. To learn more about current screening guidelines, visit the American Cancer Society.