General Cancer Screening for Women
This article focuses on screening for individuals with female organs including breasts, a cervix, and a uterus.
Cancer screening tests help to find cancer or pre-cancerous areas early. Sometimes these tests find things before you may even have symptoms. Research has shown that cancer treatments are the most successful when cancer is found early.
You should see your primary care provider (PCP) every year for a “wellness” check-up. During this visit, your provider may screen you for some cancers, will talk with you about your family cancer history, and if you have any genetic mutations that put you at a higher risk for some cancers. This will help your provider plan for when and how often you need to have cancer screenings.
During your routine dental exams, your dentist should look at your mouth and tongue for any changes. This is an oral cancer screening.
You should be screened for breast, cervical, colorectal, and skin cancers. Your provider may also screen you for thyroid and uterine (endometrial) cancer depending on personal/family history or the presence of a known genetic syndrome. If you are a smoker or have a history of smoking, your provider may want you to have lung cancer screening.
Breast Cancer Screening
When to start screening and what kind of screening test to have depends on if you are average or higher risk. Clinical breast exams (CBE) and monthly self-breast exams are no longer recommended. You should still know your normal breast tissue and tell your provider about any changes in appearance, size, or feel of the tissue or nipples, or any nipple discharge.
You may be at average risk if:
- You don’t have a history of breast cancer.
- You don’t have a strong family history of breast cancer.
- You or your family does not have a known genetic mutation (like BRCA).
- You didn’t have chest radiation before you turned 30 years old.
Average risk screening recommendations:
- If you are between the ages of 40-44, you have the choice to start screening mammograms after talking about the risks and benefits with your provider.
- If you are 45 to 54 years old you should have a mammogram every year.
- If you are over 55, have a mammogram every 2 years. You may also choose to have them every year.
- You should continue regular screening as long as you are in good health and expected to live 10 years or more.
- A clinical breast exam (CBE), done by a healthcare professional, is no longer recommended.
- Monthly self-breast exams are no longer recommended. You should still be familiar with your normal breast tissue and tell your provider about any changes in appearance, size, or feel of the tissue or nipples, or any nipple discharge.
You may be at a higher risk if:
- You had genetic testing and have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation.
- You have a parent, sibling, or child with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation and haven’t had genetic testing.
- You had radiation to your chest between the ages of 10 and 30.
- You have Li-Fraumeni, Cowden, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome or a parent, sibling, or child with one of these genetic syndromes.
Higher risk screening recommendations:
- Have a breast MRI and mammogram every year, usually starting at the age of 30.
Cervical Cancer Screening
- You should begin cervical cancer screening at age 25. Even if you had the HPV vaccine, you should still follow the screening recommendations for your age group.
- If you are between the ages of 25 and 65 should have:
- Primary HPV testing every 5 years. This test is not yet available at many centers/practices.
- If this test is not available, you should be screened with co-testing, which is a combination of an HPV and Pap test. This should be done every 5 years.
- If HPV testing is not available, then a Pap test alone should be done every three years.
- If you are over 65 and have always had normal cervical screenings, you do not need to be screened anymore.
- If you have had a cervical pre-cancer you should continue to be screened until you meet one of the following
- Two negative, consecutive HPV tests.
- Or 2 negative, consecutive co-tests.
- Or 3 negative, consecutive pap tests in the last 3-5 years.
- If who have had your uterus and cervix removed and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer you don’t need to be screened.
- While the American Cancer Society does not recommend cervical cancer screening every year, women should still see their provider for a well-woman checkup.
- Women who are at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more often. You may be at high risk if:
- You have HIV.
- You had an organ transplant.
- You had in-utero exposure to the drug DES.
Talk with your provider for specific recommendations.
Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer Screening
Endometrial cancer is most common in women who have gone through menopause. The American Cancer Society recommends that at menopause, you should talk about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer with your provider. Talk with your provider about your personal medical/gynecologic history to decide if screening is needed.
- Tell your provider about any new bleeding or spotting after menopause.
- If you have a history of HPNCC (hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer), you may want to have an endometrial biopsy every year starting at age 35.
Colon and Rectal Cancer Screening
There are many different types of screening tests used. Talk to your provider about what screening options you have.
- Individuals at average risk for colorectal cancer should begin screening at the age of 45.
- Average risk means:
- You have no personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
- You don’t have a family history of colon cancer.
- You don’t have a history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- You don’t have or suspect any family hereditary colorectal syndromes like FAP or HPNCC.
- You haven’t had radiation to the belly or pelvis for another cancer.
- These screenings should continue until the age of 75. After 75, you can talk with your provider about if you should continue to be screened.
- Those over the age of 85 at average risk don’t need to have further screenings.
- If you are at a higher risk of colorectal cancer, you may need to start your screenings earlier and have screenings more often. Talk to your provider about your risk and planning your screenings. Higher risk means:
- You have a personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
- You have a personal history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
- You have a family history of colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps.
- You have an inherited syndrome like FAP or HPNCC.
- You have radiation to your belly or pelvis for another cancer.
Lung Cancer Screening
Most people do not need lung cancer screening. There are some people who are screened for lung cancer because they are at a higher risk because of their smoking history. Screening is done with a yearly low-dose CT scan (LDCT) of the chest if you are at high risk.
You may be eligible for lung cancer screening if:
- You are 50 to 80 years of age and in fairly good health.
- You smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years.
- You have at least a 20-pack-year smoking history.
- A pack-year is the number of cigarette packs smoked each day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked.
- Someone who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years has a 20-pack-year smoking history. So does someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 10 years.
- You have had smoking cessation (quitting) counseling if you are smoking.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you are at a higher risk of lung cancer to make a screening plan.
Skin Cancer Risk
Skin cancer is very common and rates of skin cancer continue to rise. You can find skin cancer early by:
- Knowing your skin and your body. Look at birthmarks, moles, and freckles. If a mole has changed in size, shape, or color, is bleeding or itches, or is scaly, contact your healthcare provider to look at the area.
- The American Academy of Dermatology has a helpful guide to performing a skin exam.
You can lower your risk of cancer. Talk with your provider and make a plan for your cancer screenings.
American Cancer Society:
- Recommendations for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer. 2023.
- Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer. 2023.
- Colorectal Cancer Screening Guidelines. 2018.
- Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines.
Skin Cancer Foundation. Self-Exams Save Lives.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Final Recommendation Statement Colorectal Cancer: Screening.
Costas, L., Frias‐Gomez, J., Guardiola, M., Benavente, Y., Pineda, M., Pavón, M. Á., ... & Screenwide Team. (2019). New perspectives on screening and early detection of endometrial cancer. International journal of cancer, 145(12), 3194-3206.