Cancer Prevention: When Should I Get Tested?

By Holly Bieler
Updated on 26. Oct. 2020

When and how often you should start screening for common cancers.

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Cancer research has seen significant developments over recent years, yielding tons of new information about some of our most fatal types of cancer, as well as tons of new tests that can help detect them. Today, doctors have a variety of powerful tools at their disposal that can help detect cancers in their early stages, and ultimately save a life. However it can be confusing to remember when and how often you should be soliciting these tests. Below, a handy cheat sheet to help you stay on top of your testing and preventative health.

Colon Cancer

When To Start Screening: 45 Years old   

How Often: Once every 10 years until 75.

Colon cancer screenings, also called colonoscopies, are incredibly effective. Research indicates that regular screening was associated with a 65-75% reduction in the risk of death from colon/rectal cancers.  

If you don’t suffer from risk factors for colorectal cancer, such as a family history or personal health issues like IBS or other types of cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends getting your first colon cancer screening, also called a colonoscopy, by 45 years old. After that, you should plan on getting screened once every 10 years until you’re 75 years old, after which your doctor will decide how often it makes sense for you to be screened.

If you suffer from colorectal cancer risk factors (a full list can be found here), plan on getting your first colonoscopy earlier, around 35 years old. If you do suffer from risk factors however, make sure you’ve communicated that with your doctor, who might want to change your screening schedule accordingly.

Skin Cancer

When To Start Screening: 20 Years old   

How Often: Once every three years until 40 years old, and then annually.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in both the U.S. and the world. Research shows that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they’re 70. And while many of these cases can be cured without invasive measures, it’s important to take skin cancer and it’s dangers seriously. Indeed one person dies of skin cancer in the U.S. every half hour.

Skin cancer screenings generally comprise a visual check-up by your doctor, and should begin at an early age. Doctors suggest scheduling skin cancer-related checkups with your doctor every three years beginning at the age of 20. Once you reach 40 years old, screenings should be scheduled annually. If you suffer from risk factors such as a family history of skin cancer, consult your screening plan with your doctor, as they might want to schedule them more frequently. 

Doctors say that beginning at 20 years old you should also begin performing self screenings at home about once a month, by checking your body for new moles or abnormalities in your skin and reaching out to your doctor for a professional screening if you find anything.

Breast Cancer

When To Start Screening: 40-45 years old   

How Often: Annually until 54, then once every 2 years.

Most women can plan on scheduling annual mammograms, or x-rays of the breast that are used to detect breast cancer, beginning around 40, and no later than 45. After nine years, at the age of 54, women can generally opt to switch to screenings every two years. However if breast cancer runs in your family, you should plan on scheduling mammograms earlier. If you have the BRCA1, BRCA2 gene mutation, a hereditary mutation which increases the risk of developing breast cancer, your doctor might want to start screening as early as 25. If you don’t suffer from a gene mutation but do have a history of breast cancer in your immediate family, it’s recommended you begin both breast cancer and gene mutation screening five years before the earliest diagnosis age in your family. If your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 years old, for instance, your annual screenings should begin at 31 years old. 

Lung Cancer

When To Start Screening: Never if you don't have risk factors. 55 if you do.

How Often: Annually.

Unless you’re at very high risk for lung cancer, doctors don’t suggest regular lung cancer screening, which is conducted with a low-dose CT scan (LDCT). This is because lung cancer screenings are historically finicky, with a history of false-positive tests and the possibility of radiation poisoning from the scans, which could cause cancer in otherwise healthy people. 

If you’re between 55 to 74 years old however and have highrisk factors for lung cancer, including being a current or past smoker, doctors reccomend scheduling lung cancer screening scans yearly. Click here for the CDC’s full list of risk factors.
 

Prostate Cancer

When To Start Screening: Begin discussing with your doctor at 50.

How Often: No official guidance.

About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, which can usually be treated if it’s found earlier enough. However the jury is still out as to just how effective prostate cancer screening, which can be done via a digital rectal exam or testing of the blood for prostate-specific antigens, truly is. Prostate cancer exams have a history of false positives and even worse, false negatives, which can be incredibly dangerous. Researchers are still studying whether prostate screening tests are actually effective in lowering the risk of death, with two large recent studies offering conflicting results. 

Currently, the American Cancer Society doesn’t have an official recommendation for when and how often men should start getting screened, or even if men need to get tested at all. Instead, they suggest that starting at age 50, men begin discussing with their doctors the benefits and risks of testing and whether it is necessary.

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