Even if you’re healthy, cancer screenings are important

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • There are five main types of cancer for which the average American should undergo screening: breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate.

  • Many types of cancer don’t have noticeable symptoms in the early stages, which is why it’s so important to screen even when you feel well.

  • Providence offers a convenient chart that helps you keep track of all the recommended cancer screening tests.

Despite advances in early detection and treatment, cancer incidence rates are on the rise for many common cancers. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates the number of new cancer cases will surpass the 2-million mark in 2024, with more than 611,000 deaths projected this year alone for the U.S.

To commemorate World Cancer Day on Feb. 4, we encourage you to take steps to protect yourself against cancer. You can start by taking a look at your age and history to determine your risk of cancer and which screening recommendations are appropriate for you right now. Many insurance plans pay fully for screenings, and even if you do have an out-of-pocket cost, it’s certainly less expensive to screen for a disease than to treat one.

Here, we outline the screening guidelines for the five cancers for which the average American is at risk: Breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate. Then, Gabriel Axelrud, M.D., radiation oncologist at Covenant Health’s Joe Arrington Cancer Research and Treatment Center in Lubbock, Texas, takes a look at some of the most common myths surrounding cancer screenings.

Breast cancer

The most common breast cancer screening option is a mammogram. The American Cancer Society says women aged 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms and recommends women aged 45 and older get mammograms every year. Women aged 55 and older can consider switching to every 2 years or continuing with yearly mammograms, depending on previous results and other risk factors.

Recent advances in genetic testing and screening tests have also offered incredible insight into patients’ medical histories and whether they are at increased risk of developing breast cancer. Doctors have far more insight into various types of breast cancer and, more importantly, how to successfully treat patients.

Cervical cancer

The positive news is that cancer of the cervix is nearly always preventable with timely screenings and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. The American Cancer Society recommends an HPV test every five years starting at age 25 and continuing through age 65, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests that women start undergoing a Pap test every three years starting at age 21.

Colorectal cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, if colorectal cancer is found earlier, the chances of survival for cancer patients are upwards of 90%. A colonoscopy is the most common form of colorectal cancer screening, although a few other screening options, including stool testing, exist for those who are not at high risk for colon cancer, and may feel uncomfortable undergoing the procedure. Other healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough physical activity and quitting smoking can help decrease the risk of colon and rectum cancer. While the overall incidence of colon cancer has declined in recent years, the rate has increased among people younger than 50. As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends that screening start at age 45, rather than age 50, as previously recommended.

Lung cancer

Unfortunately, lung cancer often goes undetected until it’s at a very advanced stage. Doctors recommend regular lung cancer screenings using a simple low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scan for people over 50 who have a history of smoking and are at a higher risk for lung cancer. With advances in screening technology, doctors can see the lungs before deciding if a biopsy is necessary.

Prostate cancer

As men approach the age of 50, their risk of prostate cancer increases. There are two main methods for screening — a rectal examination and a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. While the American Urology Association recommends annual screening between ages 55 and 69, some doctors and researchers are concerned that the PSA test detects slow-growing cancers that don’t need treatment. The best option is to talk to your doctor or health care provider about whether screening is the right choice for you.

Myths about cancer screenings

There are many reasons why people might talk themselves out of undergoing regular screening. Here are a few, and Dr. Axelrud’s responses.

I feel fine, which means I probably don’t need a screening.

Dr. Axelrud: Unfortunately, many cancers don’t have noticeable symptoms in the early stages. By the time a person feels unwell, the cancer may have already progressed. That’s the point of screenings — early detection when chances of successful treatment are much higher. 

Screening tests always lead to cancer diagnoses, and I’m not ready for that.

Dr. Axelrud: In reality, most screenings confirm that you don’t have cancer. And for the ones that do lead to abnormal results, hopefully we have detected the cancer as early as possible so that treatment outcomes and survival rates are higher. 

Cancer screenings are too uncomfortable or painful.

Dr. Axelrud: Some tests may be a bit unpleasant, but considerable advances in technology have made them much more tolerable than in the past. Depending on the type of screening, minimally invasive or noninvasive alternatives could be available. For most recommended screenings, the discomfort, if any, is usually temporary and is far outweighed by the potential benefits. 

I live a healthy lifestyle already, so I don’t need to be screened for cancer.

Dr. Axelrud: Even though lifestyle can reduce the risk of multiple cancers, as shown in this Providence podcast, it does not eliminate it altogether. Family history, genetics and other factors can play a role.

If you stay on top of your screenings, you could potentially save your own life. Providence offers a convenient chart that helps you keep track of all the recommended cancer screenings, as well other important health screenings. You can also ask your doctor for an update on the cancer screening guidelines that apply to you.

Contributing caregiver

Gabriel Axelrud, M.D., radiation oncologist at Covenant Health’s Joe Arrington Cancer Research and Treatment Center in Lubbock, Texas

Find a doctor

If you want to learn more about proactive health screenings, you can find a Providence primary care provider using our provider directory.

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Related resources

Lung screenings save lives

Rising cancer rates among younger adults

What you need to know about prostate cancer

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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