One in three women will develop a form of cancer at some point in their lives. While there are a wide variety of cancers, women should be especially vigilant to those that impact women specifically, including breast and gynecological cancers. Simply being a woman is a risk factor for these types. The best chances for survival are when a cancer is detected early and treated as soon as possible, so it’s important to know how to assess your risk and understand which symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
Breast cancer begins with a tumor or lump that can be seen or felt on your breast. In severe cases, this cancer can spread to other parts of your body. In 2017, the American Cancer Society predicts 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.
Breast cancer symptoms include:
- Breast and/or nipple pain
- Nipple discharge
- Swelling of all or part of the breast
- Any changes in breast or nipple skin including irritation, dimpling, redness, scaliness,
or thickening of skin
- However, most women with breast cancer have NO symptoms
It’s important to know your risk for breast cancer. Risks can increase with age, your race and ethnicity, having a benign breast condition, the age at which you begin and end menstruation and weight. You are automatically at a higher risk if you have a first-degree relative (mother, sister, brother, father) with a mutated BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, a history of radiation treatment to the chest, or history of abnormal breast biopsy results.
Screening for breast cancer is a critical tool for catching any tumors early on. Women under the age of 40 who have an average risk of breast cancer do not need yearly mammograms. Yearly mammograms are recommended. After age 55, a woman should discuss how often to get a mammogram with her doctor. Women of all ages should perform regular breast self-exams so that they can recognize any changes in their breast tissue that may signal signs of cancer.
Endometrial cancer begins when the cells in the inner lining of the uterus grow out of control. The American Cancer Society predicts approximately 61,380 cases of endometrial cancer will be diagnosed in 2017. The average age of a woman diagnosed with endometrial cancer is 60, and it is uncommon for a woman under 45 to have this cancer.
Signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Weight loss without trying
Women with certain risk factors can have a higher risk for developing endometrial cancer. These can include taking medicines that affect hormone levels, age, family history or having colon, breast or ovarian cancer in the past. Talk with your doctor to determine if you are at an increased risk for this cancer.
Women with no symptoms and average risk do not have to undergo any testing to determine if they have endometrial cancer. Yearly pelvic exams should be performed but may not find early endometrial cancers. Women at an increased risk should see their doctors any time they have abnormal vaginal bleeding and discuss their options.
Cervical cancer starts in the cells covering the cervix – the lower part of the uterus which connects the uterus to the vagina. It tends to occur during midlife from ages 20-50. Cervical cancer, if caught early, is one of the most treatable forms of cancer.
Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or unusual discharge
- Pain or bleeding during intercourse
One of the biggest risk factors for cervical cancer is infection with certain forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV). There is no cure for HPV, but there is an HPV vaccine that can help prevent it. Other risk factors include smoking, being overweight, having multiple full-term pregnancies, and becoming pregnant when 17 or younger.
All women should begin screening at age 21. Women aged 21-29 should have a Pap test every three years. At age 30, Pap tests should be combined with an HPV test every 5 years which is to be continued to age 65. Women who have a higher risk of cervical cancer may need to get screened more often following their doctor’s recommendation.
The site of origin of ovarian cancer is the ovary or its associated fallopian tubes, and there are many different forms. Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, the most deadly of reproductive cancers.
Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Feeling full quickly when eating
- Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
- Menstrual changes
- Most women with early ovarian cancer have no symptoms
The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age, weight and the use of estrogens after menopause. The risk factors for ovarian cancer are similar to that of breast cancer, with having a first-degree relative or a gene mutation causing a higher risk.
Approximately 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. The most common way to screen for ovarian cancer is regular pelvic exams. If a woman has an increased risk for ovarian cancer, she should work with her doctor to discuss regular screenings.
If you’re at an increased risk for cancer or if it’s time for your regular screening, contact us at Women’s Health Associates for an appointment. We can talk through your options and discuss what screenings are right for you.
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