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Your screening questions answered

Due for a colon cancer, breast cancer, or osteoporosis screening? Here’s what you need to know.

As complex as healthcare can be, here’s a basic truth: screenings save lives. It’s really that simple. Still, we hear from enough members to know you have questions. Really good questions. So, we gathered them up here to help you make the best choices for your care.

Colon cancer screening

1. What is colon cancer screening?
It’s a test to see if you have any signs of colon cancer. The idea is to get one before you have any symptoms so you can catch any problems early on when they’re easiest to treat. 

2. How do I get a colon cancer screening?
You have options. The gold standard is a colonoscopy, where your doctor uses a camera to look inside the colon. If your results are normal and you have an average risk for colon cancer, you may not need another one for 10 years.

There are also tests you can do at home. You just provide a stool sample and send it to a lab. One of these tests is called a FIT kit. If you go with this option, doctors usually recommend you do it once a year. 

3. How often do I need a colon cancer screening?
It depends on your health history, age, and other factors. Ask your doctor what’s right for you. If colon cancer runs in your family or you had polyps on a colonoscopy in the past, you may need screenings more often. 

4. I feel fine. Do I really need to get screened?
Yes! By the time you have symptoms, the cancer is much further along. The goal of screening  is to catch problems early, before they even turn into cancer. The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat and even cure.

5. It doesn’t run in my family, so I can skip the screening, right?
No, definitely not. Most cases of colon cancer don’t run in families. In fact, 2 out of every 3 people who get colon cancer don't have a family history of it. 

6. Does my plan cover colon cancer screenings?
Yes. As long as you go to a covered provider, your plan pays the cost of a colonoscopy. If you also get other care during that visit, you may have a specialist copay, but that's it. Your plan also covers the FIT kit, at no cost to you. 

7. Are there any low-cost colonoscopy prep medications?
Yes! To get ready for a colonoscopy, you’ll take medication to help empty your colon. You have several options and they all work just as well. If the one your doctor prescribes is higher cost, call us at 1-800-338-6833 (TTY 711). We'll help you find a less costly option.

Breast cancer screening

1. What is breast cancer screening?
It’s a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast that checks for cancer.

2. How often do I need a mammogram?
It depends on your risk for breast cancer, which is based on things like your personal and family health history. It’s best to talk to your doctor to learn how often you should get one

For someone with an average risk, once you reach age 55, you can choose to get one every year or every other year. If you’re at high risk, you’ll likely need a mammogram every year, plus a breast MRI. 

3. I do breast self-exams. Do I really need a mammogram?
Yes. The research is very clear on this: self exams are no substitute for mammograms. 

4. Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family. Do I really need a mammogram?
Yes. When breast cancer runs in the family, you’re certainly at higher risk for it. But most women who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of it. 

5. I don’t like the idea of radiation. Are mammograms really safe?
First, it helps to know how much radiation you get from a mammogram. On average, Americans get about 3 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation a year just from our natural surroundings. Millisieverts measure radiation, like inches measure length. When you fly in an airplane, you get a little more radiation because you’re higher in the sky.

Mammograms use a small, safe amount of radiation at about 0.4 mSv. That’s about the same as what you get from 7 weeks of  just being alive on our planet. 

When caught very early, breast cancer is almost always curable — and you’re more likely to keep your breasts. The best tool for that is a mammogram.

6. Does my plan cover mammograms?
Yes. As long as you go to a covered provider, your plan pays the cost of a screening mammogram.

Osteoporosis screening

1. What is osteoporosis screening?
It’s a test that checks for signs of weak bones. Osteoporosis is a condition where your bones are thinner and less dense, making them more likely to break. 

2. How do I get an osteoporosis screening?
The most reliable way is a DEXA scan, a low-energy X-ray to check your bone health. 

3. How often do I need to get screened?
It’s best to check with your provider. Usually, doctors recommend women 65 and older get screened every other year at most. It could be less often based on your risk level and DEXA scan results. Women ages 50 to 64 who are at higher risk may also need screenings. 

Having a parent who broke a hip, certain conditions that affect the intestines, multiple sclerosis, and very low body weight can all raise your risk for osteoporosis.

4. I don’t have any symptoms or family history. Why get screened?
Osteoporosis affects nearly 1 in 5 women over age 50 — many don’t have a family history. And thinning bones is not something you see with the naked eye. People often don’t find out they have osteoporosis until after a break. You want to catch it much earlier than that.

The older we get, the more serious broken bones become. They can have an outsized impact on your quality of life. Screening is important so you can take steps to increase your bone strength before you run into problems. 

5. I don’t like radiation. Are DEXA scans safe?
A full body DEXA scan uses 0.003 mSv of radiation. That’s very low, about the same as you get in  9 hours of just living on our planet (see question 5 under Breast Cancer Screening for more details). 

Given how low the radiation is, the payoff of more deeply understanding your bone health and possibly preventing serious injury is well worth it. 

This article is for general reference only (
This article is for general reference only (learn more). Always talk to your doctor or other health professional for medical advice.