If there's one thing you've probably learned from your doctor and the experiences of others, it’s that, if you catch serious medical problems early, they can often be treated.

This is precisely why routine preventive screening tests are vital. Many of these screening tests are especially important (or should be) for women. Mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies all have the potential to save millions of lives. Yet, many women still aren't sure when they're supposed to start getting them, or how often those tests should be repeated.

Confusing matters further are ongoing debates, such as when to start mammograms. Many groups, including the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG), and the Breast Center at St. Mary’s Medical Center, urge women at average risk for breast cancer to get a mammogram every year starting at age 40.

Women who are at high risk for early breast cancer (i.e. BRCA mutations, family history of early breast cancer, prior radiation therapy for Hodgkin's disease, etc.) are encouraged to start screening even earlier. These women might also qualify for a high risk protocol including MRI. In addition, in women who have dense breast tissue, screening ultrasound is sometimes recommended.

Many physicians recommend that women start getting the Pap test at age 21 every three years. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for cervical cancer in women age 21 to 65 years old with Pap smear once every three years. For women who want to be screened less frequently, the panel recommends women age 30 to 65 have both the Pap smear and HPV test every five years. ACOG has similar recommendations.

Health experts recommend most women start screening for colorectal cancer at age 50, undergoing a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. These procedures both involve video inspection of the colon, but while the colonoscopy views the entire colon, the sigmoidoscopy looks only at the lower colon next to the rectum. Is one better than the other? They both have advantages, and a difference in cost. There are also other, less invasive options, including home testing, that may be appropriate for some patients. Which type of test and how often you need to be screened can vary depending on your medical history and other factors.

USPSTF believes most patients should begin colorectal cancer screening with a colonoscopy at age 50 and undergo the test every 10 years, usually until the age of 75. A doctor may determine that sigmoidoscopy and fecal blood testing is sufficient. The American Cancer Society outlines similar recommendations.

Patients should become familiar with the screening guidelines from all major organizations, and discuss a screening plan with their doctor.

• Blood pressure test: The American Heart Association recommends patients have their blood pressure taken at least once each year starting at age 20.

• Lipid panel: The AHA recommends checking cholesterol and triglycerides levels every four to six years.

• Blood glucose tests (screening for diabetes) should take place at least every three years starting at age 45.

Experts say that while women should certainly be vigilant about undergoing tests for these common cancers, another good way to stay healthy is to have regular check-ups to monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and diabetes risk, as heart disease remains the top killer of women in the U.S.

Your physician's decision to order certain screening tests at an earlier or later age than average may have to do with a number of personalized factors such as age, weight, existing health conditions and whether you have a family history of disease. Remember, the more you know about yourself, the healthier you're likely to be.

-- You can reach St. Mary’s Medical Center at 816-228-5900.