Nearly 40% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. The good news? Cancer-related deaths are declining. Following are some of the most prevalent cancers among women and how to best prevent them or spot the signs early.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer affecting American women. Up to age 50, skin cancer is more prevalent in women. Incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers is currently increasing faster in women than men; however, women generally have better survival rates. Being light-skinned and having a lot of moles are risk factors.
To prevent skin cancer, reduce excessive exposure to UV rays by wearing sunscreen and SPF-rated clothing. Check your skin often for changes such as growth of moles, crusty or discolored spots, and non-healing sores. And finally, avoid the use of tanning beds, which increase the risk of melanoma by 30 times in women under 30.
- Having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation
- Starting menstruation before age 12
- Starting menopause after 55
- Having dense breasts
- History of radiation therapy to the chest
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight
- Using oral contraceptives
- Using hormone replacement therapy
- First pregnancy after age 30
- Not breastfeeding
- Not having ever having had a full-term pregnancy
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Women often detect their own breast cancers during routine activities like showering or shaving. Signs to look for include a lump in the breast or armpit or changes to the skin or shape of the breast or nipple. For women at average risk the American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms from age 40 to 54, reducing to every 2 years after that.
Colorectal cancer (CRC) affects over 250,000 people per year, with rates being 30% lower in women than men. Lifestyle factors account for more than half of all cases of CRC and include poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, high alcohol consumption, and smoking. Having a first relative with CRC increases your risk by 2 to 4 times. Having a chronic inflammatory bowel disease also increases risk for CRC, as does type 2 diabetes.
Screening for CRC should start at age 45 and continue until 85 for those at average risk; earlier and more frequently for high-risk individuals. Colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years. Stool-based tests for the presence of blood, levels of immune markers related to CRC, and DNA changes are also available.
Endometrial cancer, or cancer of the uterine lining (endometrium) is the most common gynecologic cancer in the U.S., with over 60,000 new cases per year. While there are no screening tests, it is usually detected early because it generally produces noticeable symptoms, including vaginal bleeding between periods, bleeding after menopause, and pelvic pain.
Increased estrogen levels from conditions such as obesity and polycystic ovary syndrome, or taking estrogen replacement therapy without progesterone can increase risk for endometrial cancer. Diabetes also increases risk, possibly due to insulin resistance, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. Taking hormone therapy for breast cancer, such as tamoxifen, increases risk for uterine cancer because, although tamoxifen inhibits estrogen in breast tissue it activates estrogen in the uterus. Other risk factors include older age, early menstruation, late menopause, never being pregnant, and diabetes. The most important preventive measures are maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly.
Ovarian Cancer is the second most common gynecologic cancer in U.S. women. Risk factors include older age, having family members with a history of ovarian cancer, having a genetic mutation such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, having a history of breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer, having endometriosis, and never having given birth.
Preventive measures include using birth control pills for 5 or more years, having a baby, breastfeeding, having your fallopian tubes tied, and having your uterus or ovaries removed. If you have your ovaries removed prior to menopause to prevent or treat ovarian cancer you may abruptly undergo menopause. This is known as surgical menopause and can include typical menopause symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. and women make up about 43% of diagnoses. Risk factors include smoking, which accounts for 80–90% of lung cancer deaths and exposure to substances such as radon, asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and silica; as well as a history of radiation therapy to the chest. Avoiding or reducing your exposure to tobacco smoke and avoiding these listed substances in your work or home environment are the best preventive measures.
Though cancer is common only 5–10% of cancers are due to genetically inherited mutations. It’s possible to substantially reduce your risk by adopting a healthy lifestyle and limiting your exposure to cancer-causing substances.
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