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For Your Health – Not Just Pink: Key Cancer Screenings for Men and Women

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz

Siteman Cancer Center

As we begin our annual move toward fall and more normal routines of work, school, and family, it can be a great time to make sure that all of us are up to date with our recommended cancer screening tests.

There’s probably no better reminder of this than the upcoming Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.  The pink ribbons we see on websites, cereal boxes, and t-shirts symbolize the importance of breast cancer and of cancer screenings. One out of four cancers diagnosed in women is breast cancer, so take the step now to get breast cancer screenings scheduled.

While October focuses on mammograms for breast cancer, this translates just as well to other key tests for colon, lung, cervical, and prostate cancers. Screening tests not only help find cancers earlier when they’re more treatable, but some can also help prevent certain cancers from developing in the first place. Below are general recommendations for five cancers; four apply to women, three to men.

People with a family history of cancer may need to begin screening at earlier ages than most. So, it’s important for younger adults in particular to talk to their providers about their risk of cancer and when it’s best for them to start getting screened.

Breast Cancer (Begin age 40)

While there are still some small differences in the breast cancer screening recommendations from individual organizations, most are now unifying behind women starting mammograms at age 40, and getting them regularly every year or every other year.

Cervical Cancer (Begin age 25)

Screening for cervical cancer helps to both find cancer early, and to help prevent the disease by finding and treating pre-cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that most women begin screening at age 25 with an HPV (human papillomavirus) test every five years. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections.  If an HPV test by itself isn’t available, an HPV test plus Pap test every five years is recommended, or a Pap test by itself every three years.

Colon Cancer (Begin age 45)

Colon cancer screening is another that can help prevent cancer as well as help find disease in earlier, more treatable stages.  Most people should start screening at age 45, and there are a number of different tests from which to choose.  Colonoscopy is the most common test and usually only needs to be done every ten years.  Home stool tests, such as a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and stool DNA test, are quicker and easier than colonoscopy but need to be done more often.

Lung Cancer (Begin age 50, if history of smoking)

Yearly lung cancer screening is recommend beginning at age 50 for certain people who smoke or have quit in the last 15 years.  It’s important to talk to a healthcare provider to see if you qualify for screening and then to decide if screening is right for you. Currently, screening is only recommended in people who’ve smoked the equivalent of one pack a day for 20 years.

Prostate Cancer (Begin age 50, or 40 – 45 in Black men and others at higher risk)

Most men should talk to a healthcare provider about prostate cancer screening starting at age 50.  Black or African-American men and others at high risk because of their family history should have this talk at age 45 and maybe even younger. Compared to other types of cancer screenings, there can be a more subtle balance between the potential benefits and harms of screening for prostate cancer. So, it’s important to discuss the test with a healthcare provider and then decide if it’s right for you.

Cancer screening saves lives.  Millions of us missed our regular screenings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and still need to catch back up.  So, make your health a priority and take some time this fall to check with your provider to see if you’re up to date with your tests and schedule any you may need.

It’s your health.  Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool, Your Disease Risk.


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