When Should I be Screened for Cancer? by Brianne Hottinger, MSN, RN, OCN, CBCN, TTS, Pulmonary Supervisor/Care Navigator, Pulmonary Clinic, Blanchard Valley Hospital
The number one reason to be screened for cancer is to find it in its earliest stages and have a greater potential for cure. The following are the latest screening guidelines, according to the American Cancer Society. Mammograms, for the detection of breast cancer, start at age 40 for women. A mammography should continue as long as you are in good health and have a life expectancy of at least 10 more years. Colonoscopies, for the detection of colorectal cancer, begin at age 45. There are other less invasive screenings available for colon cancer, such as a fecal immunochemical test (FIT). However, if these less invasive tests come back positive, the patient will be referred to a specialist to discuss the need for a colonoscopy. Cervical cancer screening via a Pap test should begin at age 21 and be done every three years. Lung cancer screening, using low-dose computed tomography (CT) scanning, should begin at age 55 if you are a current smoker or have quit smoking in the last 15 years. The suggested cut off for this screening is 77 years of age.
There are risks to being screened for cancer. Some screenings can produce false-positive results, causing anxiety and additional tests or procedures. Testing can also lead to over diagnosis. Some cancers are extremely slow-growing and will not harm a person in their lifetime. Each person should take into consideration their risk factors, such as a family history of cancer, their physician’s recommendations and the rationale behind screening. If you have a history of colon cancer in your immediate family, it may be recommended that screening starts 10 years before their age of diagnosis. For example, if your father was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 42, then screening may be warranted to start for you at age 32. A discussion with your physician or a genetic counselor would be of benefit to anyone with a strong family history of cancer, who is interested in high-risk screening.
In short, cancer screening saves lives. Screening for cancer is proven to be an effective best practice at reducing late-stage diagnosis and increasing cure rates. While there is no handbook for each individual, guidelines have been set as a rule of thumb for screening. Each person is encouraged to speak with their family practitioner to discuss their cancer risk and when a screening is appropriate for them. Our society is healthier as a whole and we are living longer than we used to, yet screening has no definitive end. Speak with your family practitioner about when to quit screening as well. Some guidelines have suggested stop ages, but if you are healthy and have a life expectancy of 10 or more years, then it may be beneficial to continue screening. For more information regarding cancer screenings, you can visit www.cdc.gov/cancer or contact your family physician.