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May 2019

Cancer Screenings: Key to Early Detection

More and more Americans are surviving cancer. This is partly because of early detection of the disease.

Female doctor talking with female patient

The good news is that screening tests exist for common cancers such as colorectal, breast, and cervical cancer. Screening tests are used to spot cancer before it causes any symptoms. Usually, the sooner cancer is found, the better the chance it can be treated before it has spread. This often means that treatment will be more successful.

A starting point for screening exams is a physical exam by your healthcare provider, as well as discussions with your provider. An X-ray or lab test can be done. In some cases, you may have a mix of methods—such as clinical breast exam and mammography.

Which cancer screenings should you have and when? Your provider can answer those questions based on your health history, your family health history, and other risk factors you may have.

The bottom line is, early detection of cancer can save many lives. And a key piece of early detection is having screening tests.

Common cancer screenings

The following are the American Cancer Society’s screening recommendations for certain cancers. Note that other expert medical organizations may have varying guidelines. Your healthcare provider can help you understand the recommendations made by other groups such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.  Talk with your provider to figure out when and how often you should have the screening tests.

Cancer type


Screening test

How often




For women at average risk:

  • Every year, beginning at age 45 until age 54, then every other year for women ages 55 and older.

*Women ages 40 to 44 have the option to choose yearly screening

**Women 55 and older have the option to choose yearly screening



Pap test

Pap test combined with HPV test

Every 3 years, beginning at age 21 until age 29

Every 5 years, beginning at age 30 until age 65


1 of the tests to the right will be done. if you choose a test and have an abnormal test result, you will need to follow up promptly with a colonoscopy.


Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)

Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)

Stool DNA test

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy


For men and women at average risk:

  • Every year, beginning at age 45

  • Every year, beginning at age 45

  • Every 3 years, beginning at age 45

  • Every 5 years, beginning at age 45

  • Every 5 years, beginning at age 45

  • Every 10 years, beginning at age 45



Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test

Men ages 50 and older at average risk, with a life expectancy of greater than 10 years. Discuss the advantages and limits of this test with their providers.

Men at high risk should have discussions starting at age 45. This includes men who are African American or have a family history (father, brother, son) of prostate cancer before the age of 65.

Men who have a family history of prostate cancer of more than one relative (father, brother, son) before the age of 65 should have discussions at age 40.

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2019
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