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Routine cancer screening: Recommendations for early detection

GEHA | March 7, 2024

Routine cancer screenings are a safe and easy way to detect cancer cells before they spread and when treatment is likely to work best.

With millions of people affected in the U.S., cancer is a frightening disease — and it likely isn’t going away anytime soon. Routine cancer screenings are a safe and easy way to detect cancer cells before they spread and when treatment is likely to work best.

Why is it important to get screened?

Cancer screenings can be lifesaving because they can detect cancer before symptoms even occur. By identifying cancer early, you may be able to avoid vigorous and costly treatments in the future.

What cancers to screen for and when

The timing for preventive screenings depends on factors like your age, lifestyle and family history. Read the following screening recommendations to learn what may be best for you.

Breast cancer screening

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Breast cancer screening, or mammograms, involve taking X-rays of both breasts to detect small signs of cancer that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The following recommendations apply to women at average risk for breast cancer, according to the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF):

  • Women ages 40–49 should talk to their doctor about the risks and benefits of starting routine mammograms
  • Women ages 50–74 and at average risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every two years

All women who are able should become familiar with the look and feel of their own breasts. This allows the woman to detect changes themselves and report them to a health care provider as soon as possible, rather than waiting for their screening.

Women at high risk for breast cancer should get a mammogram every year with the addition of a breast MRI, a method of acquiring highly detailed images of the inside of the breast. To determine if you’re at high or average risk, talk to your health care provider.

Colorectal cancer screening

Polyps and cancer in the colon and rectum can be found early thanks to colorectal cancer screening. A polyp can take up to 15 years to develop into cancer, but regular screening is still crucial. The following are the USPSTF’s screening recommendations for a person at average risk for colorectal cancer:

  • People aged 45 should start regular screening and continue screening through age 75 so long as they have good health and a ten-year life expectancy
  • People ages 76–85 may choose when they get screened based on personal preference and overall health
  • People ages 85 and older may stop screening

Colorectal cancer screening typically involves a colonoscopy, a stool-based test or both. There are a few different types of tests to choose from, and people at higher risk for colorectal cancer may need to start screening sooner and more often.

If you’re unsure of your screening options or risk level, it’s important to have a conversation with your health care provider.

Cervical cancer screening

Screening for cervical cancer can involve two tests: the Papanicolaou (Pap) test and the HPV (human papillomavirus) test. During both tests, a physician lightly swabs the cervix to remove cells, which are then tested for cancerous or precancerous conditions.

These tests can be done individually or at the same time. However, according to the ACS, a primary HPV test is better at preventing cervical cancers than a Pap test done alone.

Women should follow these recommendations for cervical cancer screening, as outlined by the USPSTF:

  • Women younger than 21 should not get screened for cervical cancer
  • Women ages 21–29 should complete a Pap test every three years
  • Women ages 30–65 should get either a Pap test every three years, an HPV test every five years or a combination of the two every five years
  • Women aged 65 or older and are not at high risk for cervical cancer should cease screening

How can you reduce your cancer risk?

In addition to following current screening recommendations, it’s important to be proactive about your overall health and well-being. The CDC offers the following tips to help prevent cancer:

  • Avoid smoking and tobacco products. Limit exposure to secondhand smoke, which can be harmful.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. The more you drink, the greater your cancer risk.
  • Follow a nutritious meal plan. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.
  • Participate in regular physical activity. Making healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk of obesity-related cancers.

How can GEHA help?

GEHA covers mammograms, colorectal cancer and cervical cancer screenings at 100% when the member is of qualifying age and uses an in-network physician or facility. Find a provider near you and schedule your screenings today.

To help keep you motivated, GEHA offers financial rewards and incentives to our members for completing healthy activities. All five of our medical plans offer rewards for up to two members per household aged 18 and older. Learn more about GEHA’s 2024 health rewards and the Wellness Pays rewards program and see how fun and easy healthy living can be.

Have you attended a webinar?

Every month, GEHA hosts a free webinar designed to offer ways to live a healthier life. Check out our upcoming offerings on aging gracefully, mindfulness and financial well-being. You can view past webinars, too.

View 2024 webinars

“What Is Cancer?”, American Cancer Society, 14 February, 2022.
“Breast Cancer Statistics.”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 June, 2023.
“What Is Breast Cancer Screening?”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 July, 2023.
“Colorectal Cancer: Screening.”, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 18 May, 2021.
“Can Colorectal Polyps and Cancer Be Found Early?”, American Cancer Society, 29 June, 2020.
“The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer.”, American Cancer Society, 22 April, 2021.
“Cervical Cancer: Screening.”, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 21 August, 2018.
“HPV and HPV Testing.”, American Cancer Society, 25 August, 2023.
“Healthy Choices.”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 June, 2023.

The information contained herein is for informational and educational purposes only. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice and if you have questions regarding a medical condition, regimen, or treatment you should always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider. Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice from a qualified medical professional because of information you have read herein.

This is a brief description of the features of Government Employees Health Association, Inc.'s medical plans. Before making a final decision, please read the GEHA Federal brochures. All benefits are subject to the definitions, limitations and exclusions set forth in the Federal brochures.