Cancer screening timelines for the over 50s

Studies have found people over 65 account for a higher percentage of newly diagnosed cases of cancer so the need to do your screenings increases as you age. While being diagnosed with cancer is no longer a death sentence, every expert will tell you that the earlier you address it, the better.

So don’t bury your head in the sand and take the view ‘no news is good news’. Take a look at these recommended cancer screening timelines for your age group and sex and if you follow our guide, you’ll be one step ahead.

For women over 50

Breast cancer screening

If you’re aged between 50 and 74, you should have a mammogram – or breast screen – every two years

It’s important that all women are aware of their breasts and take notice of any changes in the way they breasts look or feel. If you notice something different, you should see your doctor straight away.

Booking a breast screen or mammogram is easy to do – simply go to Breast Screen Australia or ring 13 20 50 and make an appointment for a free screening.

If you’re aged between 50 and 74 and you fall in the risk category for breast cancer because it runs in your family or you’ve had breast tissue issues before, then you should have a screening once a year.

Cervical cancer screening

All women over the age of 25 should have a Pap smear every two years, or more often if their doctor advises

The best way to lessen your likelihood of developing cervical cancer is to have regular Pap smears. This simple test can pick up early changes to the cervix, which can be treated before cancer develops.

Most doctors can carry out a Pap test for you or there will be free services for this test in your state. As you get older, cervical cancer is less likely but the Australian Department of Health suggests you should keep screening until you are 69 years of age. See here.

No screening is needed after a hysterectomy that has removed the uterus and cervix as long as it was done for reasons not related to cervical cancer. Women with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue testing on a yearly basis for 20 years after that diagnosis.

For men over 50

Prostate cancer screening

Screening for prostate cancer is different to most other cancers. There’s not a particular test that’s reliable enough to screen all men for prostate cancer so doctors say it’s better to do screenings on an individual basis

As well, there’s concern that testing men without symptoms for prostate cancer exposes them to tests that can cause harm and may leave them with side effects such as impotence and incontinence.

So if you have no symptoms, before screening for prostate cancer you should talk this over with your doctor and weigh up all the pros and cons.

However, if you’re at above-average risk for prostate cancer – i.e. your father or brother have had prostate cancer, particularly before they turned 60 – discuss your screening options with your doctor.

There are three different screens for prostate cancer. Talk to your doctor and they’ll give you the test that best suits your age and history. If any of these tests suggest you could have prostate problems, there’ll be more tests to do to help clarify your situation. For more information contact the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20 or visit the Cancer Council’s site here.

Men and women over 50

Colon cancer screening

You should start screening for colon or bowel cancer when you turn 50 and do this test once every two years

Screening is vitally important for bowel cancer because it often has no symptoms in its early stages. The FOBT helps catch bowel cancer early which can significantly improve your chance of surviving the disease.

In Australia we have a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program and this Program sends people aged 50 and over a free FOBT kit in the mail. You may have received one and you didn’t know what it was. They are easy to use – you simply follow the instructions and post your samples to the laboratory address given. This test is free of charge and won’t take much time to do.


Kerri explains why getting screened, even if there's no clear signs or symptoms, is so important

If you haven’t received one you can phone 1800 118 868 or visit cancerscreening.gov.au and they’ll send you a kit. Or you can purchase a kit from some pharmacies.

The FOBT is only for low-risk people with no symptoms of bowel cancer. Anyone with symptoms of bowel cancer should talk to their doctor immediately. Symptoms can include persistent changes to your bowel habits, rectal bleeding or abdominal discomfort.

If you have a strong family history or a genetic condition linked to bowel cancer, the FOBT is not the right test for you. You and other family members may need screening colonoscopies as a precaution. A screening colonoscopy is recommended for high-risk people at 50 years of age, or 10 years before the earliest age a family member was diagnosed with bowel cancer, whichever comes first. It should be repeated every one to two years.

For more information visit the Cancer Council’s site here.

Lung cancer screening

If you have a history of smoking, talk to your doctor about screening for lung cancer

Your doctors may suggest you have an annual low-dose CT scan to screen for early lung cancer. Screening may benefit if you’re still smoking or a former smoker who has quit within the past 15 years.

In Australia, we don’t have a screening program for lung cancer for the general population. So if you have some symptoms you feel could be related to lung cancer, see your doctor. Symptoms include: a cough which doesn’t go away; coughing up blood or rust-coloured sputum; chest pain that’s often worse with deep breathing or coughing; hoarseness; weight loss and loss of appetite; shortness of breath; and feeling tired or weak.

Skin cancer screening

From the age of 18 right through to your senior years, it is a good idea to have your skin checked for skin cancer once a year

Despite the fact we have a high incidence of skin cancer here in Australia, there’s currently no organised screening program for skin cancer. Many doctors say it’s a good precautionary measure to see a specialist skin cancer doctor once a year and have your skin checked for skin cancer.

You can usually find a clinic where these doctors who will conduct this screening for you. If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, you may need to do this screening more often, so discuss this with your doctor.

As well, the Cancer Council Australia encourages you to become familiar with your skin, including the skin that is not normally exposed to the sun. The Council says you should consult a doctor if you notice any change in shape, colour or size of a lesion, or the development of a new lesion.

Bone cancer screening

In Australia we don’t have an organised bone cancer screening program because bone cancer is rare. It affects people of all ages and is slightly more common in males than females

So again this is a case where you should go to your doctor for tests if you have any symptoms you feel could be related to your bones and have been persistent for more than two weeks. These symptoms include: a strong pain in the bones and joints; swelling over the affected part of the bone; stiffness or tenderness in the bone; problems with movement such as an unexplained limp; unexplained weight loss; loss of feeling in the affected limb; and tiredness.

Have you been screened for cancer lately? Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for others? Please share them with us in the comments below.

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