You’re eating right, you’re managing your stress, you’re staying active — you’ve got this health thing down, right? While these are all essential to staying healthy, there’s one major thing you might be missing: cancer screenings.
Cancer screenings — tests that look for signs of cancer before you have any symptoms — are an effective way to be proactive about your health. They allow cancer to be found at an earlier stage, before it has spread, making it easier to treat or cure.
According to the American Cancer Society, almost 900,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in 2019. And yet, many women don’t take advantage of the screenings that are geared toward finding cancer in their bodies.
Cancer screening can take different forms, including:
- Physical exams and personal health history
- Laboratory tests, such as blood, urine, or tissue samples
- Imagining procedures, such as mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests
- Genetic tests that look for genetic mutations (changes to your genes) that have been linked to cancer
For women, some cancer screenings are particularly important. Cancers that are most common in women that currently have screenings include:
- Skin cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Endometrial cancer
- Lung cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Skin cancer is the most common cancer women may face in their lives, and breast cancer is the second most common.
- Breast and cervical cancer death rates in women have been declining for the past 3 decades due to early detection from mammograms and Pap tests.
- When breast cancer is diagnosed before it spreads, the 5-year survival rate is 99%.
- The likelihood of survival from cervical cancer is nearly 100% when precancerous cells are detected from Pap test screenings.
- Lung cancer screenings, such as chest X-rays, have been shown to reduce lung cancer deaths by about 20%.
Fast Facts About Cancer Screening in Women
Cancer screening may help save your life or the life of your mother, grandmother, daughter, spouse, cousin, or best friend. However, myths about screening sometimes keep women from getting the tests they need.
Here are 3 myths about cancer screenings for women.
Myth #1: I don’t have a family history of breast cancer — or any cancer — so I don’t need screening.
This doesn’t mean that family history isn’t important — some cancers do tend to run in families. If your mother, grandmother, or other female relatives have or have had certain cancers, you may need to start screening earlier or get screened more often.
But just like you don’t need to have symptoms of cancer for screening, you don’t need to have a family history of cancer. For example, most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread by skin contact during sex, not family history.
Cancer screenings, such as mammograms, are the most effective way to find cancer early — with or without any family history. The current cancer screening recommendations for all women are:
- Breast cancer screening, such as mammograms, should begin at age 40.
- Colon cancer screening, such as stool-based tests and colonoscopies, should begin at age 45.
- Cervical cancer screening, such as Pap tests, should begin at age 21.
- Skin cancer screening, such as skin exams, should be done at all annual check-ups.
Other screenings for certain groups of women include:
- Lung cancer screening, such as low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scans, should begin at age 55 for women who are smokers.
- Endometrial cancer screening, such as endometrial biopsies, should begin at age 35 for women who have a family history of colon cancer, are known to carry a gene mutation linked with endometrial cancer, or have family members who carry one of these gene mutations.
Talk to your physician about your individual screening recommendations. They may ask you about family history, your lifestyle, or medications you are taking — all of which can play a role in your risk of cancer.
Myth #2: If my screening shows signs of cancer, that means I have cancer.
It can be scary to get an abnormal result from a cancer screening. But remember — that doesn’t mean you actually have cancer.
Screenings look for signs of cancer in women, but can’t actually make a diagnosis. If the screening finds something abnormal, you will need further testing to see if it’s cancerous.
For example, if your mammogram shows a lump in your breast, the lump may be a sign of cancer or something else, such as a cyst. Your provider may perform a biopsy, where they remove a tissue sample from the lump to look at under a microscope for cancerous cells. The biopsy can confirm cancer, but the mammogram cannot.
If further testing confirms cancer, it’s important to remember that you’re improving your chances of beating it with early treatment. By keeping up with recommended screenings, you can be confident that you’re doing all that you can to avoid an advanced diagnosis of cancer down the line.
It’s also important to talk to your relatives — especially females — if you have cancer. You may be tempted to keep it a secret, so you don’t cause them to worry or stress. But they can be your best support systems. Plus, it’s critical for them to know that cancer runs in the family so they can make sure they understand their own risk.
Myth #3: Cancer screenings aren’t worth the time, pain, or stress.
Some women believe the costs of cancer screenings outweigh the benefits. They might have heard concerns about overdiagnosis of cancer, uncomfortable procedures, or emotional stress that comes with screenings. Or, they might say they don’t have time in their already hectic lives to get to regular screenings.
However, screening tests save many women’s lives. They have reduced the number of deaths from cancers of the colon and rectum, breast, cervix, and lung. By screening for cancer and catching it in its early stages, some cancers, such as breast and cervical cancer, can be nearly 100% treatable.
Cancer screenings may allow you to live a longer, healthier life. You might have to go through some emotional or physical stress every year or so, but that’s better than putting you — and your loved ones — through the turmoil of advanced cancer treatments.
Health care providers only recommend screenings for women when the benefits are worth it. Years of research — including trials, case studies, and expert opinions — help them decide when a screening test should be standard for all women. It’s their priority to make sure they are safe, effective, and completely worth the temporary burden you may have to go through.
Staying Proactive Between Screening Tests
While screening tests for women are an effective way to catch cancer early, you can also take preventative measures on your own. Being familiar with your body, avoiding known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals, such as tobacco), and getting to your annual physical exams can also help prevent or catch cancer early between your scheduled screenings.
Women should do self-exams, such as self-breast exams for breast cancer and skin checks for skin cancer. It’s also important to inform your physician of any changes in your body such as unusual spotting or bleeding not related to your period (which could be signs of endometrial cancer) or abdominal swelling (a sign of ovarian cancer).
Continuing to Debunk the Myths
Cancer has long been — and still is — one of the biggest threats to women’s health. With more research, education, and screening, there are more ways to catch cancer early and treat it.
Cancer death rates have been dropping — and will likely continue to — as we continue to find out more ways to screen for, prevent, and treat cancer. It’s up to you to take charge of your health, and take advantage of the screenings available that can save your life.