Cancer Tests That Can Save Your Life
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Cancer Tests That Can Save Your Life

Image for cancer tests Like many young and middle-aged women, you may assume you’re immune to cancer. But statistics tell otherwise: among American women age 59 and younger, nearly 54,000 deaths occur from cancer each year. And while a woman’s chance of developing cancer between birth and age 39 is only 1 in 52, it jumps to 1 in 11 starting at age 40.

And the risk continues to rise from there.

Starting in the premenopausal years, women should exercise increased vigilance in cancer screening. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends a cancer-related checkup every three years for women ages 20-39, and every year for women 40 and older.

The following is advice from ACS on how to watch for four of the most common cancers in young and middle-aged women. Since screening tests and exams are the best way to catch cancer early, carefully check to make sure you’re getting all you need.

These are general recommendations for women at average risk. No one is average, though, so get personalized screening recommendations from your doctor—especially if you’re at increased risk for cancer. Your life could depend on it.

Breast Cancer

How Frequent?

In women, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer other than skin cancer and the second most-common cause of cancer deaths (following lung cancer ). In 2008, breast cancer caused 184,450 new cancers and 40,930 deaths. The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age—two out of three women with invasive breast cancer are aged 55 or older.

Screening Tests

The best cancer protection is to use all three of the following screening tests:

  • Breast self-exam—Examine yourself monthly starting at age 20.
  • Clinical breast exams—Your doctor can check your breasts for suspicious lumps or other signs of cancer. Schedule an exam at least every three years between ages 20 and 39, then yearly starting at 40.
  • Mammograms—This x-ray test is less accurate before menopause, since pre-menopausal women have denser breast tissue. Even so, it is the most effective screening test we have for breast cancer. The ACS recommends getting a baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 39, followed by yearly mammograms starting at age 40. Other professional organizations have somewhat different recommendations. Discuss with your doctor what is best for you.

Cervical Cancer

How Frequent?

Thanks to widespread screening with Pap smears, cervical cancer has declined an estimated 50% over the past 30 years. Still, about 11,070 new cancers and 3,870 deaths each year are associated with cervical cancer.

Screening Tests

The major barrier in detecting cervical cancer is failure to get screened. Groups of US women who are often not screened regularly include older women, the uninsured, ethnic minorities, and those who live in rural areas. The answer continues to be seeing your doctor regularly for a Pap smear.

  • When to start—Get your first Pap smear when you become sexually active or turn age 18, whichever comes first.
  • How often—After three normal annual Paps, have a repeat test every 1-3 years at the advice of your doctor. If you’re at high risk for cervical cancer, you may need more frequent Pap smears.

Ovarian Cancer

How Frequent?

Though relatively uncommon, ovarian cancer has the lowest survival rate of all cancers affecting the female reproductive organs. It causes about 22,430 new cancers and 15,280 deaths each year, making it the eighth most common cancer in women.

Screening Tests

ACS recommends a routine pelvic examination every 1-3 years between ages 18-39, then annually starting at age 40. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, discuss additional screening strategies with your doctor.

Skin Cancer

How Frequent?

Skin cancer is by far the most frequent kind of cancer in the US. The vast majority of skin cancers consist of basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is a less common type that is much more deadly.

Screening Tests

ACS recommends a total body skin exam by your doctor every three years if you’re between the ages of 20-39, or yearly after age 40. It’s also a good idea to learn to examine your own skin monthly for signs of skin cancer.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer. CA Cancer J Clin. 2001;51:87-88.

Estimated new cancer cases and deaths by sex, US, 2008. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Published 2008. Accessed August 4, 2008.

Friedman J. Cancer screening in premenopausal women. Family Practice Recertification. 2002;24:53-61.

Guidelines for cancer screening in patients at average risk. American Family Physician. 2000;62:1649-1650.

How many women get breast cancer cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed August 4, 2008.

How many women get cervical cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed August 4, 2008.

How many women get ovarian cancer? American Cancer Society website. Available at: Updated February 2008. Accessed August 4, 2008.

Vick T. Routine screening for cervical, breast and colorectal cancers. The Female Patient . 2002;27(suppl):20–24.

Last reviewed June 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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