Women’s Cancers and You: Understanding and Reducing Your Risk

By Dr. Katherine Dallow

It’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way—through their own personal battle, or a friend or family member’s. When it comes to women’s cancers, the ubiquitous pink ribbon campaigns for breast cancer awareness and research have made a tremendous impact in our collective consciousness, but we still don’t always do as much as we can to reduce our risk or detect potential problems early. And many women don’t think much about gynecological cancers, or cancers that affect a woman’s reproductive system, even though they affect more than 100,000 women per year. While these cancers can be fatal, they are often treatable if discovered early. It’s time to understand our risk, and take control of what we can do to improve our odds.

The four most common types of cancers among women are breast, endometrial, ovarian, and cervical.

  • Breast cancer will take an estimated 40,000 women’s lives in the U.S. in 2016, and approximately 246,600 women will receive an invasive breast cancer diagnosis for the first time.
  • Endometrial cancer affects the lining of the uterus. Many women who develop this kind of cancer have taken estrogen therapy without progesterone, such as during menopause, have never been pregnant or have never taken oral contraceptives. There are 54,000 new cases of endometrial cancer per year.
  • Ovarian cancer is most likely to occur in women who have never taken oral contraceptives, have never been pregnant, have a family history or have taken estrogen replacement therapy without progesterone. Roughly 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are reported each year.
  • Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. Cervical cancer is most often attributed to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. It can affect any sexually active woman, whether she has sex with men or women. 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are reported annually.

Preventive care and lifestyle choices can make a difference in catching cancer early. Regular healthcare screenings, additional community education, and increased access to care can all improve prevention and early detection. Conversely, a lack of regular screenings and delaying follow-up appointments after abnormal test results can increase odds of being diagnosed with advanced cancers.

Changes to your lifestyle can help minimize the risk of developing breast cancer and other cancers. You can limit some habits, like alcohol and red meat consumption, or cut out others entirely, like tobacco use. Controlling weight and combatting obesity, including getting 30 minutes of physical activity each day, can also improve your overall health and reduce your cancer risk. Here are some additional things to be mindful of between doctor visits:

  • Know your body. Endometrial and cervical cancers often develop with symptoms such as unusual discharge, spotting, or bleeding. Breast cancer can be detected early by noticing lumps or changes in breast tissue. Pay close attention to any changes in your body.
  • Check yourself regularly. Self-exams are an especially important and easy step for breast cancer detection, and are far too often overlooked. Self-exams can be performed at home—in the shower is ideal—approximately one week after menstruation if applicable. Lifting one arm at a time, use your opposite hand in a circling, massaging motion to feel for anything irregular in your breast tissue. Get to know what’s normal for you, and talk to your doctor about any changes.
  • Talk to your doctor about preventive measures especially you have a family history of gynecological or breast cancer. Your doctor is the person most informed about which screenings and medications can best keep you healthy and limit your risk for developing any of these cancers in the future. Some conditions, such as cervical cancer, can even be prevented with a vaccine.

About the author:

Katherine Dallow, M.D., MPH is the Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. With over 15 years of healthcare experience, Katherine is a knowledgeable physician executive and leader in the industry and obtained her Master of Public Health at Harvard University. Katherine lives in Dover, Massachusetts with her family and enjoys hot yoga, golf and needlepoint.

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