Cancer Oncology Center

6 Essential Cancer Screenings

Cancer was not even remotely on her radar when Robin M. was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer at age 21. After finding a growing, painful lump in her breast, she knew it wasn’t normal. “Unfortunately, breast cancer can happen to anyone at any age,” says Robin, who had no family history of the disease and tested negative for the breast cancer gene. “Women should know the normal characteristics of their breasts and so they know immediately when there are changes.”

Are we just more aware of cancers or are rates actually rising? It’s hard to say, but thanks to advanced screenings, we can detect many cancers earlier and more reliably than ever. “Routine cancer screening is important to good health,” says Virtua Cancer Program’s Joan Lombardi, RN, BSN. “Tests such as yearly mammograms can detect breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable. Colonoscopy can lead to the removal of a precancerous polyp that will never have the chance to develop into colon cancer.”

Recently the link between the human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer has pushed the topic to the forefront of discussions on women’s health, as eight out of 10 women in the United States who have had sex will at some point get HPV. “Cervical cancer is highly preventable because screening tests, to find problems with the cervix soon after they start, and HPV vaccines, to prevent HPV infections, are available,” explains Lombardi. “With early detection, cervical cancer is treatable with long survival and good quality of life.”

With all of these cancer risks seemingly looming over us, how do women know when to be checked and for what? Is it ever too soon? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure we’re not too late? Lombardi breaks down the whats and whens of the most important exams and screenings:

Breast Cancer

All women should know the normal characteristics of their breasts, as this is the best way to notice changes early. Start clinical breast exams every two to three years at age 20, but do them annually at age 40, along with a mammogram.

Cervical Cancer

Start annual Pap smears at age 21 to screen for the abnormal cells on the cervix that indicate HPV. Talk to your gynecologist about the HPV vaccine as a preventative measure against the disease; even if you’ve received the vaccine, you’ll still need annual exams.

Skin Cancer

Know your moles, and make sure your annual health check-ups include a skin check. If you’ve spent a lot of sun block-free time in the sun or notice a change in the size or shape of a mole, see a dermatologist.

Colon Cancer

Do you have a family history of the disease? If so, talk to your doctor, especially if you notice any changes in your bowel habits, blood in your stool, unintended weight loss or abdominal pain. Women age 50 and older should have a colonoscopy every 10 years or sigmoidoscopy every five years.

Oral Cancer

Your biannual visit to the dentist should include a clinical exam of the mouth and throat, but you can do the same at home by regularly checking your mouth and throat with a mirror.

Thyroid Cancer

Your doctor should be checking your thyroid for changes at your annual health exams.

While routine cancer screenings are important to your health, a healthy lifestyle remains a vital part of disease prevention. Remember to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoid tobacco, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and protect yourself from sun exposure.

Updated December 29, 2017

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