5 Exams That Could Save Your Life

In today's busy world, medical exams often take a backseat to work, family, and other commitments. In fact, 28 percent of women don't go for their annual Pap tests, and only 32 percent know their cholesterol numbers. Could this behavior be compromising your health? Here's a list of five exams you can't afford to put off another day.

1. Colonoscopy

To detect colorectal cancer before symptoms occur, a colonoscopy is a must. Doctors generally recommend that patients have their first test at age 50. If a parent or sibling was diagnosed with colorectal cancer or polyps before 50, you should ask your doctor when to start getting screened. The death rate from colorectal cancer has been decreasing over the past 15 years. According to the American Cancer Society, this is largely due to colorectal cancer screening and its ability to identify polyps before they turn into cancer. A colonoscopy can be less intimidating if you know what to expect.

2. Cholesterol Test

One of the most effective ways to track your risk of heart disease is to regularly check your cholesterol levels. Elevated levels increase your chances of heart attack, stroke, and other dangerous health conditions. You should begin getting your cholesterol tested at age 20, regardless of whether you have a family or personal history of heart problems. If results are normal, you should get checked at least every five years until you reach age 45. If you're 45 or older, have a family history of heart disease, or have a total cholesterol level higher than 200, you should get screened annually.

3. Clinical Breast Exam and Mammogram

Both types of screening can detect breast cancer when it's confined to the breast. In fact, 97 percent of women diagnosed at this stage survive without a recurrence for at least five years, according to the American Cancer Society. Starting at age 20, your doctor should manually examine your breasts at your regular checkup. By age 40, you should have a mammogram (an X-ray of the breasts) once every other year.

4. Pap Test

This is the most reliable form of cervical cancer detection. According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate from this disease has declined by more than 74 percent over the past 50 years—largely due to the Pap Smear. Pap Tests should begin at age 21 (or earlier if you are sexually active). If you've had several normal Pap Tests in a row and a negative human-papillomavirus (HPV) test, you can get tested every other year. If you're a smoker, have multiple sexual partners, began having intercourse at a young age, are HIV-positive, or have a sexually transmitted disease, an annual Pap Test is recommended.

5. Prostate Exam

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men, but is also one of the most preventable. The American Cancer Society believes that doctors should offer the PSA blood test and DRE (digital rectal exam) yearly, beginning at age 50 to men who do not have any major medical problems and can be expected to live at least 10 more years. Men at high risk should begin testing at age 45. Those at high risk include African American men and men who have a close relative (father, brother, or son) who had prostate cancer before age 65.