Medical tests women should have

a female patient receiving a medical exam
Put your health at the top of the priority list by scheduling important tests that may help find, and in some cases, prevent cancer.

If you started off the New Year with a long to-do list, you’re not alone. With everything on your plate, you may be tempted to delay your annual mammogram, put off that colonoscopy or let your skin test wait. But don’t let that happen. Make 2017 the year you put your health at the top of the priority list, and you can start by scheduling important tests that may help find, and in some cases, prevent cancer.

Basic tests women should have

Mammogram: Mammograms are X-ray exams used to detect and evaluate breast changes. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends women at average risk for breast cancer begin receiving annual mammograms by age 45. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends starting at 40, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Services (USPSTF) says low-risk/healthy women can wait until their 50th birthday to begin receiving mammograms, then get them every other year thereafter. Amid all the confusion and conflicting recommendations, Dr. Anita Johnson, Breast Surgeon at our hospital near Atlanta, urges patients to follow the ACOG guidelines. “We still believe in mammograms beginning at age 40 and having them every year,” she says. “As with every type of cancer, when breast cancer is discovered early, there are typically more treatment options available, and survival rates are higher.”

Pap test: This screening procedure, also known as a Pap smear, tests for precancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix. The ACS and USPSTF recommend women get the Pap test starting at age 21 and then every three years after that, regardless of sexual activity. When a woman turns 30, she is recommended to have a Pap and HPV test (which tests for the human papilloma virus) every five years. Women may also choose to have just a Pap every three years. Dr. Kelly Manahan, Gynecologic Oncologist at our hospital near Atlanta, offers this advice: “Any woman who has ever had any abnormal Pap test should have pap tests performed until she’s 65 years old.”

Digital rectal exams: This screening allows a doctor to check the lower rectum and pelvis for rectal, uterine or ovarian cancer. Dr. Manahan says it is important for women to have a digital rectal exam every year, beginning at age 40. “This is the best way to feel the female organs, by far,” she says. “Women should ask for it if their doctor doesn’t perform it. It is a must.”

Colonoscopy: During this outpatient endoscopic procedure, a gastroenterologist examines the inner lining of the colon and rectum for abnormalities and removes any polyps. The ACS recommends that women with an average risk for colon cancer have a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50. Those younger than 50 should be screened if they have a strong family history of colon cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease. Other stool tests screen for colon cancer and are recommended every three years for people at average risk for colorectal cancer.

Skin cancer screening: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The ACS recommends women have a skin exam performed every year) during regular health check-ups. Having your doctor perform regular skin checks is especially important if you have already had skin cancer.

Computed tomography (CT) scan for lung cancer: This test examines the anatomy of the lungs and surrounding tissues. The ACS  and USPSTF recommend CT scans for women who are at high risk for lung cancer. CT scans are recommended for adults age 55 to 74 (the USPSTF recommends the tests up to age 80) with no signs or symptoms of lung cancer, those who have a history of smoking a pack a day for 30 years (or 2 packs a day for 15 years) and those who smoke or have quit smoking within the past 15 years.

Diabetes screening: The USPSTF recommends screening for abnormal blood glucose levels in adults age 40 to 70 years who are overweight. Increasing evidence also suggests women with diabetes are at higher risk for developing certain cancers, including liver, pancreatic, endometrial, colorectal, breast and bladder cancer.