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This Cancer Prevention Month, What Cancers Should You Get Screened For?

Blue Shield's Dr. Misty J. Rydelski shares guidance to stay on top of cancer screenings and prioritize your health.
Dr. Rydelski head shot
Dr. Misty J. Rydelski, regional medical director at Blue Shield

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Fortunately, you can reduce your odds of facing cancer in two key ways: prevention and screening. Prevention means emphasizing a healthy lifestyle with a focus on nutritious eating, exercise and healthy weight. Additionally, staying up-to-date on cancer screenings can help with early detection. 

“Prevention and screening are like conducting ongoing maintenance for your body,” said Dr. Misty J. Rydelski, regional medical director at Blue Shield of California. “You’re investing in yourself, your family and loved ones.”

Make sure to have a primary physician, so you can connect and discuss your personal history, family history and health issues, she advised. Annual checkups are a good time to do this.

“There's a lot of information out there,” Dr. Rydelski said. “You really need somebody to curate your care using evidence-based medicine, backed by scientific and academic research. Your primary care physician is the ideal partner.”

Common cancers and screenings

Below is a short list of screenings available for the most common cancers, based on the number of new cases diagnosed each year. Keep in mind, the guidelines below are for those with no symptoms and average risk. Your family history, race and ethnicity may necessitate getting tested earlier than the average person, so be sure to check with your physician.

Female breast cancer. (240,000 new cases and 42,000 deaths per year.) Breast cancer is only behind lung as the deadliest cancer, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends every other year mammograms for women 50 and older, or beginning at 40 and older as an individual choice. Women can also have a DNA test done for the BReast CAncer (BRCA) gene, Dr. Rydelski notes. The test, which uses a sample of blood or saliva, looks for DNA changes that indicate an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Prostate. (201,000 new cases and 33,000 deaths per year.) Men over 50, and those with higher risk factors, should consult with their physicians on options for testing, according to the American Cancer Society. A prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is possible, wherein high PSA levels may indicate cancer. Another option is a rectal exam, which allows doctors to feel for bumps or hard areas on the prostate that would necessitate further testing.

Lung and bronchus. (156,000 new cases and 136,000 deaths per year.) People ages 50 to 80 who smoke or used to smoke, and have a “20-pack-year” history or more of smoking, should have a low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scan, the American Cancer Society recommends. A “pack-year” is equal to smoking one pack per day for a year. So a “20 pack-year” history could mean one pack a day for 20 years, or two packs a day for 10 years. 

Colon and rectum. (126,000 new cases and 52,000 deaths per year.) The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends screening adults ages 45 to 75, and selective screening at older ages. Screenings include visual exams like a colonoscopy and stool tests that analyze for traces of blood.

Cervix. (11,500 cases and 4,000 deaths per year.) Women exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) are most at risk. Those between ages 25 and 65 should be tested for HPV every five years, the American Cancer Society recommends. People who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow the screening recommendations, according to the organization.

Most of all, make sure to have regular checkups with your doctor, Dr. Rydelski emphasized: “Having a physician that you connect with, and who helps you understand your risks, allows you to make an informed decision that’s best for you.”