Women’s Cancer Screenings for 30s, 40s, 50s, and Beyond

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Sarita H. Prajapati, MD
Cancer screening tools in general are either tests or procedures that men and women can do at different ages and at different times that are designed to find either cancer or precursors to cancer at an early enough time where intervening actually makes a huge difference. I do think it's important to have awareness of your own body when it comes to overall health in general, and then specifically, with cancer screening. I think it is so important to know family history, because that might make a difference for your health, for your screening, for anything that we might recommend for you.

What I often want my patients to do is control the stuff that you can, because you can't control your genetics. You can't control your risk as you age. But you can control yourself. So keep working on quitting smoking. Keep working on getting to a healthy weight. It matters over time.

If we look at cancer screening in general across a woman's life, for most individuals that process is going to start when they're in their 20s. So at the age of 21, that individual will actually start cervical cancer screening. And she'll do that about every three years at that point.

Body awareness is important, so noticing any changes in your skin, in the breast tissue, or any body part for that matter is going to be important going forward.

Once you hit your 40s, you still continue cervical cancer screening every three to five years. But now we start to have a discussion about breast cancer screening using mammography. So that piece is then new between your 30s and your 40s.

As women hit their 50s, cervical cancer screening is still important. Breast cancer screening is also still important. Colon cancer screening is added at that point. And if we use the example of screening colonoscopies, that's going to be once every decade.

For women who have an extensive smoking history, once they reach their mid-50s, those patients may be candidates for lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan done through the lungs once a year.

If we then fast forward here to your 60s, we can actually take out some of that cervical cancer screening, because if they've been normal and there's not been any changes, you can actually stop doing that in your mid-60s. But you still continue breast cancer screening with mammography and breast exams. You still do colon cancer screening with something like a screening colonoscopy.

For overall cancer screening for women in their 70s, several of the options that we've discussed earlier are actually still in play. So breast cancer screening is still an important discussion to have, and colon cancer screenings are.

The question at that point becomes whether that patient or that specific individual wants to continue screening or not, because it matters what they may end up doing with that information or what their other health history is. The rate of other health conditions is obviously higher once you're in your 70s than it is when you're in your 20s.

The whole premise behind doing cancer screening is to make a difference in that patient's life. If you can find it early enough, before either anybody has symptoms or it's had a chance to spread, that treatment is much easier and much quicker, much less painful, and they'll still have great quality of life once treatment is complete.