Cancer Screening in Women Under Age 50

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OncoLink Team
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 23, 2012

Cancer screening tests are designed to find cancer or pre-cancerous areas before there are any symptoms and, generally, when treatments are most successful. Various organizations have developed guidelines for cancer screening for women. While these guidelines vary slightly between different organizations, they cover the same basic screening tests for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers and are recommended to begin as early as the late teens. Learn more about screening tests. In addition, during routine health exams (at any age) your healthcare provider may also evaluate for cancers of the skin, mouth, thyroid and ovaries. Not all screening tests are right for everyone and your personal and family health history can affect which tests are right for you and at what age you begin them, so be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends these screening guidelines for women under the age of 50:

Breast cancer screening

  • Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health.
  • Clinical breast exam (CBE) about every 3 years for women in their 20s and 30s, and every year for women 40 and over.
  • In addition to mammograms and CBE, a monthly breast self-exam (BSE) is a good way to monitor breast health. Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any change promptly to their health care provider.

The ACS recommends that some women - because of their family history, a genetic tendency, or certain other factors - be screened with MRI in addition to mammograms. The number of women who fall into this category is small- less than 2% of all US women. Talk with your doctor about your personal history and whether you should have additional tests at an earlier age. For more information, see the ACS document, Breast Cancer: Early Detection.

Cervical cancer screening

  • All women should begin cervical cancer screening about 3 years after they begin having vaginal intercourse, but no later than 21 years old. Screening should be done every year with the regular Pap test or every 2 years using the newer liquid-based Pap test.
  • Beginning at age 30, women who have had 3 normal Pap test results in a row may get screened every 2 to 3 years. Women older than 30 may also get screened every 3 years with either the conventional or liquid-based Pap test, plus the human papilloma virus (HPV) test.
  • Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) may also choose to stop having Pap tests, unless the surgery was done as a treatment for cervical cancer or pre-cancer. Women who have had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix should continue to have Pap tests.

Some women, because of their history, may need to have a different screening schedule for cervical cancer. Please see the ACS document, Cervical Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection, for more information.

Skin cancer screening

Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed today and is one of the easiest to prevent or detect early. Remember that people of all skin tones can, and do, get skin cancer. Start by practicing sun safety, including using a broad spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA & UVB rays) every day, avoiding peak sun times (10am-4pm, when the rays are strongest) and wearing protective clothing such as hats, sunglasses and long sleeved shirts.

Examine your skin regularly so you become familiar with any moles or birthmarks. If a mole has changed in any way, including a change in size, shape, or color, has developed scaliness, bleeding, or oozing, or has become itchy or painful, or you develop a sore that will not heal, you should have a healthcare provider examine the area. If you have many moles, it may be helpful to make note of moles using pictures or a mole map. SkinCancerNet has a helpful guide to performing a skin exam.

Learn more about the types of skin cancer on OncoLink and the American Academy of Dermatology's SkinCancerNet and the Skin Cancer Foundation.

For More Information on cancer screening

  • Visit the American Cancer Society to learn more about general cancer screening test recommendations.
  • Use this helpful guide from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to interpret Pap test results.
  • Visit the US Department of Health & Human Services for recommended health screenings for women at any age.