Now that 40 (or even 50) is the new 30, those of us in midlife have realized that it’s more accurately the prime of life. The last thing we want to think about are potential health problems—and sometimes unpleasant tasks like getting cancer screenings. We’ve got decades before we have to worry about that stuff, right?
We certainly hope so, but here’s the thing: Your forties and fifties are exactly when you should think about the simple steps you can take to ensure your good health for the decades to come. After all, you may still have most of your life ahead of you.
And when it comes to cancer, finding it early is key. Cancer treatment has advanced by leaps and bounds, but it’s still most effective during cancer’s earliest stages—when symptoms haven’t shown up. That’s why the screenings below are so important.
Breast Cancer Screening
Over 90 percent of breast cancer cases occur in people without a family history. And a mammogram—basically an x-ray of your breast tissue—can detect tumors that can’t be detected with a self-administered or clinician exam.
Between the ages of 40 and 44, women not at increased risk for breast cancer should choose whether to start an annual mammogram.
Between the ages of 45 and 54, women should definitely get a mammogram each year. After age 55, you can continue yearly mammograms or opt to switch to every other year. It’s probably a good idea to discuss the pros and cons of continued screenings with your doctor.
Women who are at increased risk of breast cancer due to personal or genetic history, or because they carry a gene mutation like BRCA1 or BRCA2, should talk with their doctor about further screening options, such as an MRI scan.
Last year, the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended age to start colorectal screenings from 50 to 45.
Because the screening process for colon cancer includes the removal of polyps, a colorectal screening not only detects cancer, but can actively prevent it. You should continue regular screening through age 75. But it doesn’t have to happen every year. Every three to five years is generally fine—but check with your doctor.
Pap tests can prevent most cervical cancers. Most active cervical cancers are found among women who have never had a pap test, or who haven’t had one recently. According to American Cancer Society guidelines, women should begin getting pap tests at age 21.
Once pap tests have begun, women should continue cervical screenings according to the following guidelines:
- Age 21 to 29: a pap test every three years
- Age 30 to 65: a pap test combined with an HPV test every five years, or just a pap test every three years
- Over age 65: women who have had regular cervical screenings over the past 10 years should stop getting screenings, unless they’ve had serious pre-cancers found over the past 20 years
Those with higher risk for lung cancer should get yearly lung cancer screenings. Higher risk means those who:
- Are age 55 to 74 years and in fairly good health and
- Currently smoke or have quit during the past 15 years and
- Have at least a 30 “pack-year” smoking history. A pack-year is one pack a day per year. 30 pack-years = 1 pack a day for 30 years, or 2 packs a day for 15 years, etc.
In addition to regular screenings, you can reduce your cancer risk. Attain a healthy weight, eat healthy (with plenty of fruits and vegetables), get regular physical exercise, limit alcohol, use sunscreen, and if you do smoke or use tobacco: Quit.
If caught early, a cancer diagnosis is no longer the end of the world, though it may feel that way. With early detection, a caring team of experts, and the resources of cancer-fighting experts (like those at our Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center) at their disposal, cancer patients today have a lot to be hopeful about.