No one loves going to the doctor, especially when it involves lengthy and uncomfortable tests. But health screenings can be important for identifying issues before they evolve. Preventive measures and early treatments can save time, money and frustration. One aim of screening tests is to identify cancer before you show symptoms or the disease is able to spread.
If you’re one of the many people who are unsure about when to schedule your next checkup, fear not. The American Cancer Society offers recommended guidelines to help you figure out when you should begin your cancer screenings. While there are over a hundred types of cancer, here are a few of the more common types that you might be screened for during an exam.
Starting between ages 40 and 44, women should see their healthcare provider for annual mammograms. When you reach 55, the frequency of mammograms can change to once every two years. Both men and women should report any noticeable change in their breast tissue to their healthcare provider immediately. Men get breast cancer too, although it’s substantially more prevalent among women. Talk to your doctor to determine if you should begin screening earlier due to a family history of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends both men and women begin receiving colonoscopies every 10 years starting at the age of 50. Besides a colonoscopy, other test possibilities include a virtual colonoscopy every five years, a sigmoidoscopy every five years or a double contrast barium enema every five years. Talk to your doctor if you have a family history of cancer to see if you should modify this schedule.
Starting at age 21, women should get a Pap test every three years until age 29 to look for cervical cancer. Then from 30 to 65, doctors will usually choose to administer a Pap test along with an HPV test every five years. Women with lowered immune systems due to HIV, a previous organ transplant or a family history of cancer may require more frequent screenings.
A large part of catching diseases early is being familiar with your own body and recognizing changes if they occur. Any changes you notice in your health should be reported to your physician immediately.
In addition to the screening tests listed above, your doctor may also test your genes for mutations, do blood work, take family history or administer other imaging procedures to see if you’re at an increased risk for cancer. Genetics play an important role in your likelihood of getting cancer, so find out as much as you can about your family history before you go in for your annual checkups.
Why Not Get Screened?
Many Americans do not get all the recommended screening tests due to lack of adequate health insurance or fear of what they may discover in the results. While these screening tests are designed to keep you safe, like with any procedure there can be emotional and physical risks.
For example, the National Cancer Institute warns patients that with any screening test, there can be “false positive” or “false negative” results. If a person receives a false positive result (there’s actually no cancer and the test wasn’t accurate), that person could experience large amounts of stress, and may waste time and money undergoing further procedures. If a test comes back with a false negative result (when there is cancer present but the test doesn’t pick it up), a person may delay necessary treatment. Many screening tests, especially the more invasive ones, come with the possibility of complications, such as bleeding or tissue damage. If you want to weigh your personal pros and cons of specific cancer screenings, talk to your healthcare provider.
It’s also important to realize that just because a test detected cancer doesn’t mean that there’s anything that can be done about it. While the goal of cancer screening is to detect abnormalities early, sometimes cancer is caught too late or is unable to be removed. However, screening can save your life. Studies have shown that when colorectal screening increases, the number of early and late-stage colorectal cancer patients decreases significantly.
Unsure about whether your insurance will cover screenings? Head to PreventCancer.org to look up your state, desired test and insurance carrier to find out. You can also call your insurance carrier to double check. Even if it’s not covered, an early cancer screening could save you money — and your life — in the long run, so don’t skip them when it’s time.