When you are deciding whether you should have a health screening, consider where you are in life. Many cancer screenings only improve life expectancy if they’re performed when a person is younger. Most cancer screenings aren’t recommended for anyone with a life expectancy of less than five years.
Breast cancer screenings are the most discussed test for women. Mammography is the best known screening procedure. For a woman with an average risk of breast cancer, it’s recommended the screenings start at age 50, and continue every one or two years thereafter until the woman is 75. After age 75, the benefits of a mammogram haven’t been proven and most physicians would recommend against the screening after this age.
Monthly breast self-exams were widely recommended for many years, however these exams have been falling out of favor. As women age, breast tissue changes and it’s difficult for most women to identify if a change is simply a new “texture” or a lump.
In addition, some screenings, like a colonoscopy, are invasive and also carry some amount of risk as well, include tearing or perforating colon or rectum wall. And again, while colonoscopy is the best way to screen for colon cancer, it’s recommended for those with an average risk of colon cancer to get the screening at age 50 and then every five years thereafter, stopping at age 70 to 75. After age 75 the risk of colon cancer with symptoms is much lower. The patient usually dies of some other disease with colon cancer, rather than of colon cancer.
Older adults have many questions about screening tests, especially for cancer. But before administering any test, I ask one very important question: what will you do?
If the older adult doesn’t think she will do anything with or about the diagnosis, there’s no reason to get the screening. I tell my patients: “Don’t go looking for trouble if you’re not going to do anything about it.”
No matter what, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of cancer screenings and what is best for you.
This blog is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your health or medical needs.