Image for cancer testsThe American Cancer Society (ACS) offers these general screening recommendations for healthy women. If you have certain risk factors or symptoms, work with your doctor, who can create a cancer screening schedule that is right for you. It is important to remember that people of any age can get cancer, but the risk for most cancers increase with age.

The following is advice from ACS on how to watch for common cancers in young and middle-aged women. Since screening tests and exams are the best way to catch cancer early, carefully check to make sure you are getting what you need.

Breast Cancer

In women, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer other than skin cancer, and it is the second most common cause of cancer deaths (following lung cancer).

Screening Tests

The ACS recommends the following screening tests for breast cancer:

  • Breast self-exam (BSE)—This is a step-by-step examination of your breasts that you do yourself. It is one tool that can be used to help detect changes in your breasts that may or may not be a sign of cancer. You should understand that the self-exam has limits, benefits and potential harms. You should discuss this with your doctor and decide if doing regular breast self-exams are right for you.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE)—During this exam, the doctor checks for suspicious lumps or other changes in your breasts. If you are in your 20s or 30s, you should have a CBE every three years. If you are aged 40 or older, you should have CBE every year.
  • Mammograms—This exam uses low-dose x-rays to make a picture of your breast tissue. The ACS recommends having a mammogram every year starting at age 40. You can continue to have this exam yearly if you are in good health.

Cervical Cancer

Thanks to widespread screening with Pap smears, cervical cancer has declined over the past 30 years. This type of cancer is usually found in women aged 50 or younger, but it can occur at any age.

Screening Tests

The ACS recommends the following guidelines for cervical cancer screening:

  • Get your first Pap smear three years after becoming sexually active or at age 21. Then, have a regular Pap test every 1-2 years, depending on the type of test your doctor uses.
  • A test for human papillomavirus (a virus that causes cervical cancer) can be used with a pap smear test. If the doctor does this test with a pap smear, you need to be tested every 3 years.
  • If you are aged 30 or older and have had three normal Pap smear results in a row, you can be screened every 2-3 years. If you are at high risk for cervical cancer, you may need more frequent Pap smears.
  • You may be able to stop having Pap smears if you are aged 70 or older and:
    • Have had three normal Pap smear results in a row
    • Had no abnormal Pap smear results in the last 10 years
    • Have no other conditions that put you at high risk like HIV infection or poorly functioning immune system

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common type of cancer. It has the lowest survival rate of all cancers affecting the female reproductive organs.

Screening Tests

During your routine physical exam, your doctor may do a pelvic exam. This involves your doctor feeling your ovaries and uterus for any problems. The ACS recommends that you talk to your doctor about your need for pelvic exams. If you are at high risk for ovarian cancer, there are some screening tests that may be used, such as transvaginal sonography (a type of ultrasound test) and CA-125 blood test (a protein that may be higher in women with ovarian cancer).

Endometrial Cancer (Uterine Cancer)

Endometrial cancer affects the inner lining of the uterus (called the endometrium).

Screening Tests

When you reach the age of menopause (usually around the age of 50), the ACS recommends that you talk to your doctor about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer. If you have any symptoms (eg, vaginal bleeding or spotting, pain in the pelvic area, pain during urination or intercourse), tell your doctor right away. If you are at high risk for endometrial cancer, after age 35 you may need to have an endometrial biopsy every year.

Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most frequent kind of cancer in the US. The vast majority of skin cancers consist of basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is a less common type that can be much more deadly.

Screening Tests

During your routine physical exam, your doctor will check your skin. If you have any concerns about a suspicious moles, talk to your doctor. Some symptoms to look for include changes in the shape (eg, uneven shape or ragged edges), color, or texture of a mole. You can also check your skin once a month. Follow these tips for doing a skin self-exam:

  • Use a full-length mirror or hand-held mirror to check hard to spot places, such as between the buttocks or in the genital area.
  • Do the exam in a well-lit room.
  • Turn from front to back and left to right.
  • Note the size, shape, color, and texture of all skin blemishes and moles.
  • Check your fingernails, palms, and forearms.
  • Check your feet, toenails, soles, and between the toes.
  • Examine your scalp, separating the hair with a comb or a blow dryer.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer affects the colon or the rectum, which are parts of the digestive system. This is the third most common cancer in both men and women.

Screening Tests

According to the ACS, you should begin screening at age 50. Screening may involve one of the following tests:

  • Tests to find polyps and cancer:
    • Flexible sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years)—a visual exam of the rectum and lower portion of the colon
    • Colonoscopy (every 10 years)—a visual exam of the rectum and colon.
    • Double-contrast barium enema (every 5 years)—a test that involves inserting barium (a milky fluid), and then having x-rays done of the intestines
    • CT colonography (every 5 years)—a radiology test that looks at the colon
  • Other tests that may be used to find cancer:
    • Fecal occult blood (every year)—a test to detect the presence of blood in the stool
    • Fecal immunochemical test (every year)—another test to detect the precense of blood in the stool
    • Stool DNA test (no specified schedule)—a test to identify DNA markers that may signify the precense of polyps or cancer

While these recommendations are from the ACS, there are many other organizations that provide screening guidelines. The screening tests that your doctor recommends depend on a number of factors, like your age, personal and family medical history, risk factors, and symptoms. You can take an active role in your healthcare by talking to your doctor about the right screening tests for you.