Which cancer screenings do you need?

by Kaiser Permanente |

You eat right, stay active, and live a healthy lifestyle — so you’re healthy, right? But just because you feel healthy doesn’t mean you should skip regular checkups with your doctor.

One of the most important things we can do to take care of ourselves — especially as we get older — is keep up with our health screenings. Screening tests for conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and cancer can help doctors see signs before you have symptoms. Cancer screenings are especially important because they can prevent any small health issues from becoming bigger ones.

According to the World Health Organization, some of the most common cancer types, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colorectal cancer can be cured if they’re detected early and treated appropriately.1 This means prevention is our first line of defense in the fight against cancer. But when should you start getting cancer screenings — and how often?

Kyla Krofta, MD, medical director for prevention and screening at Kaiser Permanente Colorado, shares these recommendations on which cancer screenings you need — and when you should get them.

Breast cancer

Your doctor will often recommend a mammogram to screen for breast cancer. Guidance on when to get a mammogram can vary, so it’s important to understand what your options are for breast cancer screening and mammograms.

When to screen:

  • Starting mammograms at age 40 is an option you can discuss with your doctor.
  • By age 50, you should get mammograms every 1 to 2 years.
  • If you’re higher risk, your doctor may recommend starting before age 40. Risk factors include having a family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer.

Learn more about breast cancer screening

Cervical cancer

Your primary doctor or gynecologist will use a pap test to screen for cervical cancer. Many doctors also use HPV testing. Cervical cancer screening tests check the cells on the cervix for changes that could lead to cancer.

When to screen:

  • Usually starting around age 21, your doctor may recommend screening every 3 to 5 years. Screening may include a pap test and/or HPV test.
  • Screening guidelines vary, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about what’s best for you. Testing frequency may be more often and depends on your personal medical and screening history.

Colon cancer

To screen for colon cancer or colorectal cancer — a term that combines colon cancer and rectal cancer — you may be able to complete an at-home stool sample test. Your doctor can also schedule an in-person colonoscopy when needed.

Learn more about colon cancer

Learn more about colorectal cancer

When to screen:

  • Starting at age 50, people who are at lower risk should begin colon cancer screening.
  • If you’re at higher risk, screening at an earlier age is recommended.
    • The recommended screening age for Black Americans is age 45, as colon cancer especially affects the Black community. According to the American Cancer Society, Black Americans are almost 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer — and almost 40% more likely to die from it.2
    • If you have a close relative who has had colon cancer or if you have inflammatory bowel disease, you may be at higher risk.
  • For both lower- and high-risk groups, a stool test is done annually, and colonoscopy is typically done every 10 years. Screening usually continues until at least age 75. To help with screening rates, some doctors may also offer at-home screening test kits.

Learn more about at-home screening tests

For other types of cancer like prostate cancer and lung cancer, screenings aren’t recommended for everyone. However, if your doctor says you’re at higher risk, you should discuss the benefits of screening.

Dr. Krofta explains, “There’s a lot of research continuing to happen around cancer, and recommendations do change as we learn more and improve screening tools and cancer treatments. The important thing is to keep up with regular screenings whether you have symptoms or not, and to talk to your doctor about which screenings are right for you.”

Learn more

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Cancer: Key Statistics, World Health Organization, accessed February 2021.

Colorectal Cancer Rates Higher in African Americans, Rising in Younger People, American Cancer Society, accessed February 2021.