5 Major Cancer Screenings and When You Should Get Them

Cancer screening helps to find diseases early. They can involve tests, physical exams or other procedures. Not all cancers have screening options that are proven through clinical trials to show benefits.

Effective screenings help doctors find and treat cancers at an early stage, potentially reducing the extent of treatment needed and adding years to a person’s life. Early detection also helps cut the costs of potential future treatments.

Get Screened at the Right Time

It’s important to have the recommended screening tests when your doctor suggests and to continue whatever timeline of screening your doctor feels is necessary.

Below is a breakdown of current screening recommendations for some common cancers.

Later in this article you’ll see general information about insurance coverage and links to complete screening recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).

(Important note: Screening recommendations are for people without signs or symptoms of disease and with no known high-risk factors. If you already have signs or are at high risk, testing recommendations may be different. We recommend that you contact your primary care provider to discuss what’s right for you.)

Breast Cancer

    • Who should get screened? Women
    • When should women get screened? The USPSTF recommends that women age 50 to 74 should have screening mammography every two years.(1) The decision to start screening mammography sooner than age 50 should be an individual one. Visit with your primary care provider to discuss the benefits of having mammograms before age 50.
    • What does screening involve? A mammogram is the preferred test. A mammogram is a type of X-ray that flattens the breast against a hard surface and takes pictures (images) of the breast to see if there are possible tumors or other irregularities that may not be felt by examination.

Learn more about breast cancer symptoms and treatment.

Cervical Cancer

      • Who should get screened? Women
      • When should women get screened? Based on their age, women should have a Pap smear at these intervals:
      • Ages 21-29: Every three years (if a test shows an abnormality, your primary care provider can give you additional guidance).
      • Ages 30-65: Continue screening every three years (if a test shows an abnormality, your primary care provider can give you additional guidance). For women age 30 to 65 years who want to extend the screening interval, screening with a combination of cytology and HPV testing every five years is recommended by USPSTF and American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP).(2)
      • After age 65: Not recommended (if a previous test shows an abnormality, your primary care provider can give you additional guidance).
      • However, all women should have an annual pelvic exam, regardless of whether a PAP smear is recommended. The annual pelvic exam includes a number of important checks besides the PAP smear.
      • What does screening involve? The doctor inserts a speculum (a tool that resembles a duck bill) into the vagina. This instrument allows the doctor to see and collect cells from the cervix with a tool similar to a long Q-tip.

Learn more about cervical cancer symptoms and treatment.

Colorectal Cancer

      • Who should get screened? Men and women
      • When should you get screened? The USPSTF recommends screening for colorectal cancer in adults (both men and women) beginning at age 50 years and continuing until age 75 years.(3) Your doctor can recommend the type of test that would be appropriate for you. Based on the initial screening results, your doctor will also provide a recommendation on the frequency of subsequent screenings.
      • What do screenings involve? Tests for colorectal cancer include colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy (a tine camera on a long, thin tube is inserted in the rectum and the doctor can look inside the large intestine).

Learn more about colorectal cancer symptoms and treatment options.

Lung cancer

      • Who should get screened? Annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) is recommended for adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year* smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or upon a doctor’s recommendation.(4)
      • When should they get screened? Annual screening is recommended.
      • What does screening involve? During a low-dose CT scan of the lungs, a technician will position the chest area of a person in a large cylinder and take a series of images.

Smoking cessation is the most important intervention to prevent lung cancer! For help, talk to your health care provider or go to smokefree.gov

Learn more about lung cancer symptoms and treatment options.

Prostate Cancer

      • Who should get screened? Men
      • When should they get screened? Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and the digital rectal examination (DRE) are the common screening tests. Unfortunately, neither is 100% accurate. These tests can sometimes show abnormal results even when a man does not have cancer (this is known as a false-positive result). This can lead some men to have a prostate biopsy when they do not have cancer. The biopsy has a small risk of pain, infection and bleeding. On the other hand, results can be normal in a man with prostate cancer (known as false-negative results).This can give some men a false sense of security even though they actually have cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that men who are at average risk of prostate cancer and are expected to live at least 10 more years should have a discussion with their health care provider about the uncertainties, risks and potential benefits of prostate cancer screening at age 50.5

      • What does screening involve? For a digital rectal exam, your doctor will insert a gloved finger into the rectum and feel the prostate for abnormalities. Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a blood test.

Learn more about prostate cancer symptoms and treatment.

Insurance Coverage and Screenings

Cancer screenings can save a lot of money in the long run, which is why there’s a good chance your health insurance will pay for all or part of the cost for most of the cancer screenings we’ve mentioned. Some insurance plans may exclude certain tests. Always contact your health insurance provider to verify which screenings are covered under your plan.

A Reminder for Everyone

Screening guidelines change as technology and knowledge about diseases expand. Having an ongoing relationship with a professional health care provider is the best way to get the right guidance about screenings. They’re an important part of maintaining your health and living well.

Author credit: Elizabeth L. Dickson, MD, was a contributing author for this article. She is is a Gynecologic Oncologist at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Aurora West Allis Medical Center in West Allis, Wisconsin.

* Pack year is way to measure the amount a person has smoked over time. Multiply the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. For example, 1 pack year is equal to smoking 1 pack per day for 1 year, or 2 packs per day for half a year, and so on.


Meet the Author

Shamsuddin Virani, MD is an oncologist at the Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic in Oshkosh, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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