Jo Enman was working out twice a day, following a strict nutrition program, and generally feeling great in the days before she was shocked by a breast cancer diagnosis at age 44. She had no family health history that would raise red flags for her breast cancer risk, but nonetheless, a suspicious mammogram led to a diagnosis that shook her world.
“When my [obstetrician] and I read the findings together, I was emotionless,” she says. “I remember just breathing slowly and deeply. It wasn’t until [my primary care physician] called and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ that I had a meltdown.”
Cancer screening, such as mammography for breast cancer, raises the chances that cancer is caught early, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS)—which can be a literal life-saver since many cancers are far easier to treat when detected early. Thankfully, Jo’s cancer was in its early stages.
While you may think you’re on track for all your health checkups, in an ever-changing world of medical research, there could be updates to cancer screening guidelines that you don’t even know about.
“Cancer is so common that you can no longer think that it can’t be you,” Enman says. “I thought it couldn’t be me, but here I am. I’m just fortunate that it was caught early, at stage 0. Had I waited until there was a problem that I noticed, it could have been stage 2, or spread elsewhere. Everyone needs to do this on a regular basis, without question.”
Know the Latest Cancer Screening Guidelines
So, what exactly are the cancer screening guidelines that apply to you? Thankfully, there’s an easy way to check, says Carmen Guerra, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Board Scientific Officer for the American Cancer Society’s National Board of Directors: CancerScreenWeek.org offers a fact sheet in English and Spanish and is based on the latest ACS guidelines and covers several common cancers, like breast, colorectal, skin, and cervical cancer.
“This resource includes a concise summary of current cancer screening guidelines for breast, cervical, colorectal, lung, prostate and skin cancers,” Dr. Guerra says. You can even print it out and put it on your fridge so you have a constant reminder.
And remember, screening guidelines can change every few years, so, for example, the knowledge you have stored in your memory about when you need to get your first colonoscopy may be out of date: The starting age for colorectal screening was lowered from age 50 to age 45 in 2018, says Dr. Guerra.
Breast cancer screening guidelines were also updated recently.
“The breast cancer screening guidelines are different from previous guidelines in that 1) yearly mammograms are recommended between the ages of 45-55 because these are the years of highest risk development of breast cancer, and 2) there is no one hard stopping age,” says Dr. Guerra. “Instead, the stopping age is based on an individual's life expectancy. Screening is continued regardless of age as long as the woman is in good health and expected to live at least 10 more years.”
And it’s so important it bears repeating: Early detection saves lives.
“The best stage to catch a cancer is by what is called stage 1, when the cells are localized to a small area and have not spread,” says Dr. Guerra. “Cancers discovered at this stage have the best prognosis—the 5-year survival rates for patients with cancer in this stage is over 90-100%.”