Cancer Screenings You Might Be Missing

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on July 01, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

woman having CT scan

Most women know about mammograms and physical exams to check for early signs of breast cancer, but many may not be getting recommended screening exams to help detect and prevent other types of cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women, far outpacing breast cancer. If you have a history of heavy smoking -- either you smoke now or you’ve quit within the past 15 years -- and are 55 to 80 years old, there’s a way to cut lung cancer death risk by 20%: Get a yearly computed tomography (CT) scan to assess your risk of lung cancer, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) say.

But research published by ASCO shows that just 1.9% of current or former heavy smokers have been getting those screenings. Early detection is important for women. While the rate of new lung cancer cases in men has dropped 35% over the past four decades, among women it has risen 87%. And women who smoke have twice the risk of getting lung cancer as men who smoke the same amount.

Many women also miss out on recommended screenings for cervical cancer, according to new research presented at this year’s ASCO meeting. One-third of women 30 to 65 were behind on cancer screening tests (which involves a Pap test) for the human papillomavirus (HPV); HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer. And only 54% of women in their 20s had been screened on schedule.

One of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine. HPV infection is so common that nearly all men and women will get one at some point in their lives, most without knowing they have it. To protect against HPV, the CDC recommends that vaccination begin in early adolescence, before teens reach puberty or start having sex. As of 2017, only about half of all teenagers in the United States were up to date with an HPV vaccination.

In 2018, the FDA also approved the vaccine for people ages 20 to 45; even if you’ve already been exposed to a few strains of HPV, it can still protect against the strains you haven’t encountered.

At your next visit with your primary care doctor, be sure to ask these questions:

  • Based on my family history, personal health history, and exposure to smoking, what is my risk for lung cancer?
  • Do you recommend that I get lung cancer screening? If so, how often?
  • What is my risk of cervical cancer?
  • How often should I be screened for cervical cancer?
  • Should I (or my child) receive the HPV vaccine? On what schedule?

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GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer: "The Facts About Women and Lung Cancer."

Journal of Clinical Oncology: "Lung cancer screening rates: Data from the lung cancer screening registry."

American Lung Association: "Lung Health Barometer."

British Journal of Cancer: "Heavy smoking and lung cancer: Are women at higher risk? Result of the ICARE study."

Journal of Women's Health: "Trends Over Time in Pap and Pap-HPV Cotesting for Cervical Cancer Screening."

CDC: "Human Papillomavirus: Questions and Answers," "National, Regional, State, and Selected Local Area Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescents Aged 13-17 Years -- United States, 2017."

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