Cancer screening tests give you the best chance of finding cancer as early as possible—which may sound good, but isn't always, according to the American Cancer Society (the ACS). For one, not all cancers have a better survival rate if you discover them early; worse, some screening tests come with risks that outweigh the benefits. (Check out these 50 common cancer myths.) These guidelines can help determine the cancer screenings that make sense for you:
Breast cancer screening
Starting at age 45, the ACS recommends all women get mammograms every year, and should speak to their healthcare provider about whether additional screening tests are advisable (these include ultrasound and MRI). That age may be adjusted downward if you have an increased risk of breast cancer, including:
- Genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 (Here's why these 14 women are grateful for their genetic mutations.)
- Personal history of breast cancer.
- Family history of breast cancer: if you have a parent, sibling, or child with breast cancer (first-degree relatives) OR multiple family members on either side of the family who've had breast cancer.
Here are some ways you can lower your risk of breast cancer.
Colon cancer screening
You probably don't need these colon cancer screening tests until you're 50, unless you have one of these risk factors:
- Personal history of colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease
- Family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps in first degree relatives, especially if diagnosed before age 45 or if there are multiple first degree relatives.
Lung cancer screening
You should always keep your health care provider informed about your smoking history and habits, but you probably don't need a lung cancer screening (in the form of a low-dose CT scan) unless you smoke or you quit less than 15 years ago, and are between the ages of 55 and 80, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
Prostate cancer screening
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently changed its advice to skip the prostate-antigen specific (PSA) test entirely. Now the group says men between the ages of 55 and 69 should decide for themselves. (The group advises men 70 and older to avoid the screen.) Why the back and forth? Prostate cancer is very slow growing—most men will die from something else before the cancer becomes deadly, and prostate cancer treatment can severely impact quality of life, causing incontinence and erectile dysfunction. The exception: Men at an increased risk of prostate cancer, in which case you should discuss prostate cancer screening with your doctors starting at age 45. Those with an increased risk include African-American men and men with first degree relatives who had prostate cancer before age 65.
Skin cancer screening
The ACS doesn't have screening guidelines for skin cancer, but knowing your own skin (and reporting changes to your health care provider) can help you survive the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, and so can getting full-body skin exams as often as your health-care provider recommends.