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Women's Cancer Screening Guidelines by Age

By Christina Bhattacharya September 05, 2015 Posted in: Cancer Care , Article

We all know about the high risk of cancer and what you can do to lower that risk. Lifestyle choices concerning your diet, exercise habits, and other behaviors should be top of mind when thinking about your long-term health, but when it comes to cancer, there's something else you can do to stay ahead of any life-changing diagnoses. By adhering to cancer screening guidelines, you'll be better prepared to catch cancer early in the process.

It's important that women follow a screening schedule that meshes with regular health care protocols, and as you age, those needs will change. You might be overwhelmed by the number of tests you need, but think of it this way: This testing is designed to identify cancer, treat it early, and increase your chance of survival.

While women have a one-in-three risk of getting cancer, according to The Oncologist, almost 14.5 million people lived past their cancer prognosis in 2014. That number is expected to continue to rise, with projected figures of up to nearly 19 million surviving a diagnosis, says the National Cancer Institute. If that's not incentive enough to follow the suggested testing schedule, it's time for a reality check.

Recommended Cancer Screening Guidelines

The American Cancer Society breaks down the different tests for each type of cancer, along with the age when these screenings should be part of your checkup routine. These apply to women of average cancer risk who don't exhibit any particular symptoms.

Regardless of age, women should adhere to two preventive practices. First of all, go for your yearly physical! This will include cancer-related screenings for a number of types, including thyroid, mouth, skin, ovarian, endometrial, lung, and skin cancers. Next, get in the habit of doing a self-exam for breast cancer. Awareness is particularly important here, and any changes should be reported to your doctor.

Let's move on to break cancer screening down by age groups:

  • Ages 20–29: Doctors will perform a clinical breast exam every one to three years, and starting at age 21, a pap exam every three years to check for cervical cancer.
  • Ages 30–39: Along with the aforementioned exams, doctors will institute an HPV (human papilloma virus) test along with the pap exam; this will be done every five years going forward.
  • Ages 40–49: While the pap exam and HPV test will continue to be instituted at the same intervals, the clinical breast exam will now be a yearly occurrence. Another annual key preventive measure for breast cancer starts, too: the mammogram.
  • Ages 50–75: In addition to the prior tests, three new exams for colorectal cancer begin at this time: a colonoscopy (done every 10 years), a yearly stool test for blood, and a flexible sigmoidoscopy (done every five years) that examines the rectum, colon, and lower large intestine.
  • Ages 76–85: At this point, your doctor will take the lead in terms of continuing examinations, increasing or lowering the intervals at which they're done, or starting up new testing procedures.

While sticking to this schedule is important, note that it's for normal circumstances. There are several reasons you might have an increased risk for a specific cancer, whether that's your family history, a genetic tendency, or other factors.

This is where excellent communication with your doctor is of the utmost importance. By talking to your doctor about these factors, you might determine that you need to follow a different screening schedule. Remember, the guidelines discussed here are just that: guidelines. Everyone has their own specific health history and makeup, so in the end, what works best for you should be a discussion between you and your doctor.

These tests are instituted to encourage the earliest possible identification of cancer for the best shot at prevention and early detection. Nobody wants to assume that they're on the road to cancer later in life, but you can breathe easier knowing that you're getting the optimum amount of testing done.

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