Health & Wellness

When should you be screened? Important cancer tests you shouldn't miss

The new year is a time to reset our efforts to stay healthy. Medical screenings, especially for cancer, can be a life-saving tool. But many people don't even know the right age to begin screening, or how often they need the tests.

Here are the basic guidelines, depending on your age:

In your 40s:

Colon cancer:

The test: Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, after lung cancer. It kills 50,000 people a year and is diagnosed in more than 136,000, according to the American Cancer Society. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for colon cancer for men and women of average risk to begin at age 50 and continue until age 75.

If you have a family history or conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn's, screening can begin earlier, in your 40s, according to the American Cancer Society.

Prostate cancer:

There will be almost 181,000 new cases of prostate cancer among men this year, with more than 26,000 men dying from the disease, the American Cancer Society estimates.

The test: PSA blood test

The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test — a simple blood test — can help detect the presence of a tumor, but it is controversial. The USPSTF recommends against routine screening for healthy men. The American Urological Association suggests screening has the greatest benefit for men 55-69 years old. But for high risk men — African-American men or any man with a first-degree relative diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age — may consider screening at age 40.

RELATED: What you need to know about prostate cancer

Melanoma:

The majority of melanoma cases are caused by sunlight and more Americans are being diagnosed with the deadliest form of skin cancer than ever, according to a recent report. While the USPSTF doesn't recommend routine self exams, early detection can save lives.

The test: A 10-minute full body check, using the ABCDE guidelines:

A ASYMMETRY - One half unlike the other half.

B BORDER- Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.

C COLOR - Varied from one area to another.

D DIAMETER - While melanomas are usually greater than 6 mm, they can be smaller.

E EVOLVING - A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest.

RELATED: 10 minutes could save your life from skin cancer

Breast cancer:

Breast cancer is a leading killer of American women. Every year, it's diagnosed in 200,000 women and a few men, and kills around 40,000.

The test: Mammogram

The American Cancer Society advises women of average risk of breast cancer to begin screening for breast cancer at age 45; and to have them every year until age 55, and then start having them every other year.

However, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says most women can safely wait until age 50 for the first mammogram; and they need only one every other year.

"There's some controversy as to exactly when to start," said Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman, director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health. "I would say most certainly by the age of 50, everyone should have at least a baseline mammogram. Some people believe it should start at 45... or even a little bit earlier."

Cervical cancer:

The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV). It may also run in families.

The test: A PAP/HPV test is recommended for women, ages 21-65, every three years. Women, 30-65, can put off the screening to every five years.

RELATED: The 6 biggest health mistakes women make in their 40s

In your 50s:

Colon cancer: First screening for men and women of average risk.

The test: Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy

"Men and women are equal opportunity in terms of colon cancer," said Schnoll-Sussman. "If you have a clean, baseline colonoscopy at 50, the next one can be done at 60."

Lung cancer:

If you're a lifelong smoker (30 years or more) or have quit within the last 15 years, the USPSTF recommends screening for lung cancer in adults, ages 55 to 80.

The test: A low-dose computed tomography.

In your 60s

Colon cancer:

The test: Colonoscopy every 10 years; flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years.

Cervical cancer:

The test: A PAP smear every 5 years. If you have no lesions on your cervix, you can stop screening entirely at age 65.

Breast cancer:

The test: Mammogram

Women between ages 60 to 69 years are most likely to avoid breast cancer death by mammogram screening every other year, according to the USPSTF.

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