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UPMC Oncologist: When to Start Cancer Screenings

The latest data from Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. To help reduce the number of cancer deaths, a wide variety of screenings are used by health care providers across the country.

Regular visits with your primary care provider usually include the recommended initial assessments, but it never hurts to advocate for yourself during these appointments. Be in the know of what cancer screenings to expect for your age range and ensure that you are getting screened accordingly.

Ages 25-39

Family history plays a big role for when and what kind of cancer screenings should begin. If an immediate family member of yours gets diagnosed with a certain type of cancer, it is important to know his or her age at diagnosis. You will likely start screenings ten years prior to that age. For example, if your father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 45, it is likely your doctor would recommend your colorectal cancer screenings begin at age 35.

Other than taking your family history into account, the main cancer testing that begins during this time of life is for cervical cancer. If you’re 25 years old and have a cervix, you should be tested for HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause this kind of cancer or others. This test should reoccur every five years until the age of 65.

Ages 40-49

At 40, the choice to begin breast cancer screening with annual mammograms is available. Mammograms use x-ray imaging to look for signs of breast cancer that are not visible. This decision can help be made by having a conversation with your doctor, but ultimately, yearly mammograms should begin at age 45 at the latest. However, if you notice changes at any age, it is important to tell your doctor right away.

Colonoscopies are the most common way to screen for colon cancer and should begin at age 45. They allow doctors to view the colon and rectum and search for any abnormalities that indicate cancer. If your first colonoscopy doesn’t show anything alarming, you can likely wait 10 years between screenings until the age of 75.

Those who are African American, or who are Caribbean of African ancestry, are at a higher risk of prostate cancer and should begin screenings the recommended age of those of average risk. Screenings for these individuals should begin at 45.

Ages 50 and Up

In addition to the screenings that began before the age of 50, it is time to start thinking about your lungs and your prostate.

Annual CT scans of your lungs may be an option, especially if you have a history of smoking. This would involve those who have quit within the last 15 years, or if there’s a 20-pack history (an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year) or more.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer affecting men in the United States next to skin cancer. It is twice as likely to occur in those who are over 70 years old.

Cancer is easiest to treat when caught early and if you have any concerns, mention them to your doctor immediately. Take charge of your health by screening often. Managing cancer screenings throughout your lifetime is vital for your overall well-being.

by Abdalla Sholi, M.D.
Medical Oncologist, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Abdalla Sholi, M.D., is the medical director of Medical Oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers in Coudersport, Wellsboro, and Williamsport. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is one of the largest integrated cancer networks in the U.S. To learn more, visit