By Morris Panner
Oh, to be young and carefree and only see the doctor when something seems wrong. But getting older means becoming more vigilant about your health, and as you approach 50, embracing preventative measures becomes increasingly important.
Preventative healthcare is a good thing because it helps us catch potential problems early, and early detection often means there are very effective options for treatment. This is especially the case with certain cancers that are more likely to occur with age but can also be identified and treated early.
Here are three types of cancer that you should be getting screened for by the age of 50 (and note that there is a good chance that your health insurance covers these screenings).
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Younger women are encouraged to do self-exams to identify possible lumps. If a woman has a history of breast cancer in her family, she may start getting annual mammograms at age 35 or earlier, but other women are typically advised to begin getting mammograms at some point between the ages of 40 and 50.
Mammograms, which are available in 2D and 3D, are the standard for yearly screenings. However, if something is spotted in the image, the radiologist may want to do a follow-up with other types of imaging – most likely an ultrasound which can provide a more complete picture, helping the radiologist to determine if a lump is benign or if a biopsy should be ordered.
Men, too, can get breast cancer. Though it is rare, when it’s found it is usually in a more advanced stage because men seldom get regular screenings. Age, family history, higher estrogen levels, and genetic mutations are among the potential risk factors for breast cancer in men.
Cancers of the colon and rectum (referred to jointly as colorectal cancers) are the third most diagnosed cancers in the U.S. Similar to breast cancer, unless one is of a particularly high risk, people usually don’t begin screenings until age 45 or 50.
There are a several different types of screenings available, including:
- Stool tests – The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a common at-home kit test where a stool sample is mailed to be tested. You have probably seen the commercials for Cologuard.
- Colonoscopy – This is the most comprehensive and accurate test, as it involves inserting a tube with a tiny camera to look for polyps and other abnormalities. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now recommends that people get their first colonoscopy at age 45, and then every 10 years thereafter if no signs of cancer are detected.
- CT Colonography (aka virtual colonoscopy) – This test is a CT scan of your colon, which allows the doctor to perform a visual exam of the colon in a less invasive way.
Although the decline in smoking over the past few decades has made a sizeable dent in the number of new lung cancer cases diagnosed each year, it is still a leading cause of death worldwide. However, it can be caught and treated before becoming fatal.
The type of screening used for lung cancer is a low-dose CT scan (also known as an LDCT). It is specifically recommended for people between the ages of 50 and 80 who have smoked a pack (or more) of cigarettes a day for at least 20 years. Even if you were once a pack-a-day smoker but have since quit, this screening is still recommended if you only quit within the last 15 years.
Unfortunately, there is still a lack of awareness of lung cancer screening. Over 80% of those who are eligible don’t know about the LDCT. If you are in this high-risk group of smokers or former smokers, be sure to talk to your doctor about the possibility of getting a lung cancer screening.
Other Cancer Screenings
In addition to these three common cancers that should be kept in mind, there are also other types to be aware of. Regular pap smears can help women catch cervical cancer, and a periodic exam by a dermatologist can help a person remain skin cancer-free.
Talk to your older family members about cancers that may run in your family and share that information with your doctor, who may advise further screenings. They may even advise genetic testing to see if you have inherited certain genes that are associated with particular types of cancer. Commercial genetic testing services like 23andMe tout their ability to offer customers information on their genetic health, including reports on Type 2 diabetes, celiac disease, and the BRCA1/BRCA2 variants.
Heading Cancer Off at the Pass
Though there are so many preventative cancer screening options available, half the battle can just be ensuring that people make the appointment and get the test. The world needs more healthcare innovators with clever ideas on how to spread the word about screenings. For instance, successful strategies that have been used to increase colorectal cancer screenings have included text messaging and lottery incentives.
We are fortunate to live in a time when cancer, which is the #2 cause of death in the U.S., is often very beatable. Though there is no single “cure” for it, there are a growing array of treatments – from traditional methods like surgery and chemotherapy to immunotherapies and newly developed drugs – that can slow down, stop, or completely cure cancer. As always, prevention is the best medicine.
About the Author
Morris Panner is President of Intelerad, a company devoted to delivering better care through improved technology. Morris served as CEO of Ambra Health from 2011 until its acquisition by Intelerad in 2021. Previously, Morris built and sold an industry-leading business-process software company, OpenAir, to NetSuite [NYSE:N]. He once served as the US Embassy Resident Legal Advisor in Bogota, Colombia, fighting narcotics trafficking. He holds a BA from Yale University and a JD from Harvard University.
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