More than 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society. While there are more than 100 different types of cancer, its development isn’t inevitable. You can reduce your risk of developing cancer by adopting a healthy lifestyle, paying attention to your body and having regular checkups. Cancer screenings are vital to early detection and early treatment, and should be a routine part of your health care regimen.
What is Cancer?
Cancer cells grow and divide at an unregulated, quickened pace are only malignant when the other cells fail to recognize and destroy them
The healthy cells that make up the body’s tissues grow, divide and replace themselves on a regular basis. Sometimes old cells become damaged or do not die when they should. Normally, the body repairs or destroys such cells, but sometimes they grow out of control, causing growths or tumors to form. Benign (non-cancerous) tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and are typically not harmful. If they become a problem or put pressure on a nearby organ, they can be surgically removed. Malignant (cancerous) tumors, however, can destroy healthy tissues and organs, and spread to other parts of the body to form new tumors.
Although most types of cancer are caused by environmental factors (including tobacco, diet, obesity, lack of exercise, infections, chemicals, radiation and pollutants), the risks of developing some types of cancer can be inherited in a person’s genes. The risks, symptoms and treatments vary depending on the type of cancer. In women, cancer is most likely to occur in the following areas:
- Colon and rectum
- Vulva and vagina
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both women and men in the United States, and is typically caused by cigarette smoking. Women who smoke are 12 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who have never smoked. Second-hand smoke — smoke from other people’s cigarettes — also increases your risk of developing lung cancer.
Lung cancer warning signs, which often do not appear until the cancer has spread, may include:
- A cough that does not go away
- Sputum (phlegm) streaked with blood
- Chest pain
- Repeat bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
You can best protect yourself from lung cancer by not smoking and by avoiding people who are smoking. If you do smoke, seek advice on how to quit. Your risk will decrease as soon as you stop smoking.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
The following risk factors have been linked to breast cancer:
- Age (the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age)
- Family history of breast cancer, especially in one’s mother or a sister
- Inheriting abnormal genes (BRCA1 or BRCA2)
- Use of hormone therapy
- Exposure to radiation (for treatment of other cancer)
- Previous history of breast cancer
Breastfeeding, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight may help reduce your risk of developing breast cancer. Talk to your doctor about other preventative measures that may work for you.
If detected early, breast cancer can be treated effectively. Be alert to these warning signs:
- A lump, or thickening, swelling or dimpling of the breast
- Irritation of breast skin
- A nipple that is distorted, pulled inward, or scaly
- Nipple discharge or bleeding
- Nipple pain or tenderness
Routine cancer screenings and physical exams can help detect cancer in its early stages, even in women who do not exhibit these symptoms. A mammography can help detect breast cancer before a lump can be felt. Women in their 40s should have this test done every 1 to 2 years; women ages 50 and older should have it done every year. All women should have a breast exam by their doctors once a year. They should also examine their own breasts on a regular basis.
Colon and Rectal Cancer
Colon and rectal cancer, or colorectal cancer, affects the large intestine and the rectum. It is the third leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. In most cases, colorectal cancer begins as polyp in the colon or rectum and develops slowly over time. You may be at risk of developing colorectal cancer if you:
- Have a close relative (mother, father, sister or brother) younger than 60 years old or two or more close relatives of any age who have colorectal cancer or certain types of colon polyps.
- Have a personal history of colon cancer or certain types of colon polyps.
- Have had bowel disease, such as chronic ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease.
- Have a family history of familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer.
There usually are no signs of colon and rectal cancer in the early stages of the disease. In the more advanced stages, signs and symptoms include:
- A change in bowel habits
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Blood in the stool or dark stools
- Stools that are more narrow than usual
- Abdominal discomfort (bloating, cramps or frequent gas pains)
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement (that does not go away after a bowel movement)
- Decreased appetite
- Weakness and feeling tired
Having any of these symptoms does not mean you have cancer. The same symptoms can result from other, less severe problems.
Routine screening can help detect colorectal cancer in early stages. The following tests are used to detect colorectal cancer:
- FOBT or fecal immunochemical testing
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
- Double contrast barium enema test
- Computed tomography
- Fecal DNA test
Talk with your doctor about which screening test is right for you. Most women should begin regular screenings at age 50.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Nearly half of the U.S. population who lives to age 65 will develop some form of skin cancer.
Fair-skinned people are more likely to develop skin cancer, but dark-skinned people also are at risk. Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or tanning lamps increases your risk, as does a family history of skin cancer.
There are three main types of skin cancer basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell cancers show up as pale, wax-like, pearly bumps, or red, scaly patches. In most cases, basal and squamous cell cancers are cured after they are removed. Melanoma, the leading cause of skin cancer death, starts with small, mole-like growths that get bigger, darker and change color. They grow in an irregular (not round) shape and may bleed easily. You are at risk for melanoma if you have a family history of melanoma or have many large and unusually shaped moles.
Heed these skin cancer warning signs:
- A change in the size of a mole
- Scaliness, oozing or bleeding
- A change in color of a mole or other spot on the skin
- Itchiness, tenderness or pain in or by a bump or mole
- A sore that does not heal
Regular self-exams are the best way to detect skin cancer early. Be sure to look at all parts of your body, even those not exposed to the sun.
Check moles regularly for changes in shape, color or size, and have your doctor examine them at checkups. The following steps also may help prevent skin cancer:
- Avoid being out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- When you are outdoors, use sunscreen even if it is not sunny.
- Wear sunglasses and clothing that blocks UV rays and a hat that shades your face, neck and ears.
- Do not use tanning beds or sun lamps.
Choosing and Using Sunscreen
Sunscreen blocks harmful solar rays that could cause cancer. Broad-spectrum products prevent sunburn of surface skin and damage to deeper layers of skin. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher. Be sure to apply sunscreen correctly. Apply it to all exposed areas of skin 30 minutes before you go outside. Reapply it every two hours or after swimming, perspiring or towel drying. Sunscreen should not be used on babies age 6 months and younger.
The risk of ovarian cancer is low, but increases with age. This disease causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive system cancer.
Factors that increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer include:
- High-fat diet
- Personal history of breast or colon cancer
- Advancing age (women older than 60 have the highest risk)
- Abnormal genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
Women who have taken oral contraceptives, have at least one child or have breastfed are at a lower risk.
Ovarian cancer is hard to detect before it reaches an advanced stage. While there are no good screening tests for this type of cancer, your doctor may be able to feel a cyst on one or both ovaries during your annual pelvic exam. Very few of these cysts will prove to be cancer, but they should be checked by your doctor.
Heed the following warning signs:
- Discomfort in the pelvic area
- Indigestion, gas or bloating that cannot be explained
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Swelling of the abdomen
The risk of cancer of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) increases after age 55, and occurs most often in women between the ages of 60 and 75. It is rare in women younger than 40. Women who have taken oral contraceptives appear to have a lower risk than those who have not.
Factors that increase a woman’s risk for this type of cancer include:
- Use of estrogen alone as hormone therapy
- Not giving birth
- Menopause after age 52
- Obesity and related conditions, such as high blood pressure
- Diabetes and other disorders, such as thyroid disease or gall bladder disease
- Use of tamoxifen
- Having endometrial hyperplasia
- Having other inherited cancers, such as certain types of colon cancer
- Infrequent ovulation resulting in irregular or missed periods
Heed these warning signs:
- Bleeding after menopause
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge between periods
- Prolonged and heavy bleeding during periods
Doctors do not routinely screen for endometrial cancer. If you exhibit any of the above warning signs, your doctor may conduct one of the following tests:
- Endometrial biopsy: (link to endometrial page) A small piece of tissue is removed from the lining of the uterus.
- Ultrasound exam: Sound waves are used to assess the thickness of the uterine lining.
- Dilation and curettage (D&C): The cervix is opened and tissue is gently scraped or suctioned from inside of the uterus.
- Hysteroscopy: A slender, light-transmitting device is used to view the inside of the uterus.
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the United States. Today, the death rate is lower, in large part because of the Pap test, which can help detect problems early, before they become cancer.
A woman is at increased risk for cervical cancer if she:
- Has a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
- Has an human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Has a weakened immune system
- Was exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) during her mother’s pregnancy
There may be no warning signs of early cervical cancer. Signs of more advanced cervical cancer include:
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Abnormal bleeding
- Bleeding after sex
Most cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV),(link to hpv) the most common sexually transmitted infection in adults worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 80 percent of American women will contract at least one strain of HPV by age 50.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two HPV vaccines that can help prevent cervical cancer in women who are vaccinated before they are exposed to the virus. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommend HPV vaccination for girls ages 11 or 12, though they also may be given to females as young as 9 or as old as 26. The HPV vaccine is administered intramuscularly in three 0.5-ml doses over the course of six months. Because the vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV, women who are vaccinated should still have regular Pap tests.
Vulvar and Vaginal Cancer
Cancers of the vulva and vagina are rare, but can occur at any age, most often in women older than 60. Risk factors include smoking and certain vulvar infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV).
Common warning signs include:
- A sore or lump that does not go away
- Abnormal bleeding
Skin cancer also can appear on the vulva. A mole that changes in size or color or any lump or sore that does not heal should be checked by a doctor right away. A biopsy may be done to find the cause of the problem. If it is found early, this type of cancer can be successfully treated.
The vulvar self-exam will help you to be aware of any changes in the vulvar area that could signal a problem. You should do this exam at the same time every month.
Wash your hands before you begin. Lie or sit up in a comfortable position near a good, strong light with a hand mirror (magnifying mirror may work best). It may help to prop up your back with a pillow, or you can squat or kneel. The key is to find a position in which you can clearly see the vulvar area, perineum and anus. To examine your vulva:
- Gently separate the outer lips of the vulva (labia majora). Look for any changes or signs of a problem, such as redness, swelling, dark or light spots, blisters or bumps.
- Next, separate the inner lips (labia minora) and look at the area between them. Also look at the entrance to the vagina.
- Gently pull back the hood of the clitoris. Examine the area under the hood and the tip of the clitoris.
- Be sure to inspect the area around the urethra, the perineum, the anus and the pubic area.
General Warning Signs
All cancers are easier to treat in the early stages, before they’ve spread to other parts of the body. Although symptoms vary depending on the type of cancer, you should contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following warning signs:
- A change in bowel or bladder habits
- A sore that does not heal
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Thickening of or a lump in the breast or other parts of the body
- Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
- A change in a wart or mole
- A nagging cough or hoarseness
While none of these symptoms are sure signs of cancer, they are clues that something may be wrong. Pain is seldom an early sign of cancer. Do not wait for pain if other symptoms do not go away. Early detection and treatment increases your chance of success.
Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer
Many cancers are linked to lifestyle factors. Making important lifestyle changes can improve your health and help prevent cancer. Follow these tips to reduce your cancer risk:
- Do not smoke.
- Limit your fat intake (especially saturated and trans fat).
- Eat foods with high fiber content.
- Get regular health checkups.
- Exercise every day for at least 30 minutes.
- Limit your time in the sun and use sun block when you go outside.
- Pay attention to changes in your body.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Have recommended exams and tests.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
Many types of cancer can be cured if they are treated early. Being aware of the types of cancer and how to prevent and detect them can help safeguard your health. Below is a guide to the types of cancer most likely to affect women.