The Latest Guidance for Cancer Screenings

Puzzle Piece with Cancer Screening Written on It

Screening tests can help catch cancer early—before it spreads and when it is most treatable. However, keeping track of when you should get screened can be challenging. Guidelines may change based on new research discoveries, and they vary for people at higher risk for certain cancers.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has been publishing cancer screening guidelines for almost 45 years. The ACS bases its guidelines on scientific evidence and extensive discussion among cancer experts. The goal is to help people make informed choices about when to get screened to lower their risk for disease and death.

Take a few minutes to learn about the cancer screening guidelines for five of the most common types —breast, cervical, colorectal, prostate, and skin. These guidelines focus on people at average risk. If you are at higher risk for cancer or think you may be, talk to your doctor, who can create a cancer screening schedule that’s right for you.

Breast Cancer Screening

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the U.S. (some skin cancers are more common). Mammograms—low-dose X-rays of the breast—are the best screening tool for breast cancer. ACS screening guidelines for breast cancer include the following:

  • Women between 40 and 44 can consider starting screening with an annual mammogram.
  • Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
  • Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every two years, or they can choose to have a mammogram each year. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and expected to live at least 10 more years.

You may be surprised to know that the American Cancer Society does not recommend physical breast exams, whether done by a health professional or by women themselves. That’s because research doesn’t show that physical breast exams help find breast cancer early among women who also have screening mammograms. However, it’s essential to be familiar with how your breasts typically look and feel. If you notice any changes, let your health care provider know immediately.

Cervical Cancer Screening

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women. The cause of most cervical cancers is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that spreads through sexual contact. A combination of the HPV vaccine (first recommended in 2006) and regular Pap tests can prevent most cervical cancers.

Cervical cancer screening can involve a Pap test, an HPV test, or both. The American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 25 to 65 have:

  • A Pap test every three years
  • Or an HPV test every five years
  • Or an HPV/Pap every five years (both tests at once)

Women younger than 25 and older than 65 do not need cervical cancer screenings, according to the ACS. However, you should work with your provider on a screening schedule that’s right for you.

Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colorectal cancer has been causing fewer deaths in the U.S. over the past few decades. Screenings help providers detect pre-cancerous growths (polyps) in the colon and rectum so they can remove them before they become cancerous.

Both men and women at average risk for colorectal cancer should have their first colorectal cancer screening at age 45. The recommended age used to be 50, but more people under 50 have been diagnosed with these cancers in recent years.

Speak with your doctor about which type of colorectal cancer screening is best for you. Options include the following.

  • Colonoscopy. During this visual exam, the doctor uses a lighted, flexible tool to view the lining of your colon and rectum. If the doctor finds polyps during this test, they will remove them if possible.
  • Stool-based tests. These tests detect possible signs of colorectal cancer in your stool. You can use a home kit and mail your stool sample to a lab for evaluation.

After your first screening, your doctor will let you know when to schedule your next one based on your screening results.

The ACS offers this additional guidance:

  • People should continue colorectal cancer screenings until the age of 75.
  • Those aged 76 to 85 can decide whether to get screened based on their preferences and health history.
  • From age 85 and up, colorectal cancer screenings are no longer necessary.

Prostate Cancer Screening

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men in the U.S. (some forms of skin cancer are more common).

The ACS encourages men to talk to their health care provider about whether to get screened for prostate cancer starting at age 50. Why no hard-and-fast recommendations? Usually, prostate cancer grows slowly, stays in the prostate gland, and never causes problems. Screening can find these cancers and potentially lead to unnecessary worry and treatment. On the other hand, some types of prostate cancer grow quickly and need treatment.

Your health care provider can help you decide whether to get screened based on your personal and family health history, health status, and other factors. Prostate cancer screening involves a simple blood test called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test.

Men older than 70 do not need prostate cancer screening.

Skin Cancer Screening

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer—by some estimates, about 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer daily. Early detection is essential, and you can do it yourself. The ACS suggests people do a monthly skin self-exam to notice any changes to moles or skin tone and texture.

Your primary care provider or a dermatologist should also conduct annual skin checks for you. Based on what they find, they may recommend more frequent checks.

Take Charge of Your Health

Screenings are just one part of the picture when it comes to preventing cancer and catching it in the early stages. It’s also important to see your primary care provider for regular check-ups, discuss any concerns you may have, and follow up on concerning screening results. You’ll experience peace of mind knowing you are doing what you can for your health—and you might even save your own life.