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Cancer Facts for Women

The cancers that most often affect women are breast, colorectal, endometrial, lung, cervical, skin, and ovarian cancers. Knowing about these diseases and what you can do to help prevent them or find them early (when they are small and easier to treat) may save your life.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer that women may face in their lifetime (except for skin cancer). It can occur at any age, but it’s much more likely after age 40, and the risk goes up as you get older. Because of certain factors, some women may have a greater chance of having breast cancer than others. But every woman should know about breast cancer and what can be done about it.

What you can do

The best defense is to find breast cancer early– when it’s small, has not spread, and is easier to treat. Finding breast cancer early is called “early detection.” The American Cancer Society recommends the following for early detection:

  • Women age 40 and older should have mammograms each year and continue to do so as long as they are in good health.
  • Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam as part of a regular check-up by a health professional, preferably every 3 years. Women 40 and older should have a breast exam by a health professional every year.
  • Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any breast change to a health professional right away. Breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s. Talk to a doctor or nurse about benefits and limitations of BSE.

The American Cancer Society recommends that some women at high risk for breast cancer – because of their family history, a genetic tendency, or certain other factors – be screened with MRI along with mammograms. (The number of women who fall into this category is very small.) Talk with your doctor about your history and the best screening plan for you. For more information, please call us at 1-800-227-2345 or see our document called Breast Cancer: Early Detection at www.cancer.org.

Colorectal cancer

Any adult can have colorectal cancers (cancers of the colon and rectum), but most of these cancers are found in people age 50 or older. People with a personal or family history of this cancer, or who have polyps in their colon or rectum, or those with inflammatory bowel disease are more likely to have colorectal cancer. Also, eating a diet mostly of high-fat foods (especially from animal sources), being overweight, smoking, and being inactive can make a person more likely to have this cancer.

What you can do

Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a polyp – a small growth on the lining of the colon or rectum. Testing can save lives by finding polyps before they become cancer. If pre-cancerous polyps are removed, colorectal cancer can be prevented. Eating a low-fat diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables may also make you less likely to have this cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends one of the following tests for people at average risk starting at age 50:

Tests that find polyps and cancer

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years*, or
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years, or
  • Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years*, or
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years*

Tests that mostly find cancer

  • Yearly guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)**, or
  • Yearly fecal immunochemical test (FIT)**, or
  • Stool DNA test (sDNA), every 3 years*

* If the test is positive, a colonoscopy should be done.
** Highly-sensitive versions of these tests should be used with the multiple stool take-home method. One test done by the doctor is not enough for testing. A colonoscopy should be done if the test is positive.

The tests that are designed to find both early cancer and polyps should be your first choice if these tests are available to you and you are willing to have one of them. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

If you are at high risk of colon cancer based on family history or other factors you may need to be screened at a younger age with colonoscopy. Talk to your doctor about your risk for colon cancer to know when you should start screening.

Endometrial cancer

Endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus) occurs most often in women age 50 and older. Taking estrogen without progesterone or taking tamoxifen for breast cancer treatment or to lower breast cancer risk might increase a woman’s chance for this disease. Having an early onset of menstrual periods, late menopause, a history of infertility, or not having children can increase the risk, too. Women with a personal or family history of hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) or polycystic ovary disease, or those who are obese are also more likely to have endometrial cancer.

What you can do

Watch for signs and symptoms, such as unusual spotting or bleeding not related to menstrual periods, and report these to your doctor. The Pap test is very good at finding cancer of the cervix, but it’s not a test for endometrial cancer.

The American Cancer Society recommends that yearly testing with an endometrial biopsy be offered by age 35 to women who have or are likely to have hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer.

Lung cancer

Smoking is the cause of more than 80% of all lung cancers, but people who don’t smoke can also have lung cancer.

What you can do

Lung cancer is one of the few cancers that can often be prevented simply by not smoking. If you are a smoker, ask your doctor or nurse to help you quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start, and avoid breathing in other people’s smoke. If your friends and loved ones are smokers, help them quit. For help quitting, call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to find out how we can help improve your chances of quitting for good.

Certain women at high risk for lung cancer may want to talk to a doctor about whether getting a low-dose CT scan to screen for early lung cancer is right for them. Screening may benefit adults who are active or former smokers between the ages of 55 and 74 who have no signs of lung cancer and who have a 30 pack-year smoking history. (A pack-year is 1 pack of cigarettes per day per year. One pack per day for 30 years or 2 packs per day for 15 years would both be 30 pack-years.) You should discuss the benefits, limitations, and risks of lung cancer screening with a doctor before testing is done.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer can affect any woman who is or has been sexually active. It occurs in women who have had the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus is passed during sex. Cervical cancer is also more likely in women who smoke, have HIV or AIDS, have poor nutrition, and who do not get regular Pap tests.

What you can do

A Pap test can find changes in the cervix that can be treated before they become cancer. The Pap test is also very good at finding cervical cancer early, when it can often be cured. The American Cancer Society recommends the following:

  • Cervical cancer screening (testing) should begin at age 21. Women under age 21 should not be tested.
  • Women between ages 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years. There is also a test called the HPV test. HPV testing should not be used in this age group unless it’s needed after an abnormal Pap test result.
  • Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test plus an HPV test (called “co-testing”) every 5 years. This is the preferred approach, but it’s also OK to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
  • Women over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing with normal results should not be tested for cervical cancer. Once testing is stopped, it should not be started again. Women with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis, even if testing continues past age 65.
  • A woman who has had her uterus removed (and also her cervix) for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious pre-cancer should not be tested.
  • A woman who has been vaccinated against HPV should still follow the screening recommendations for her age group.

Some women – because of their history – may need to be tested more often. They should talk to their doctor about their history.

HPV vaccine (3 doses) should be given to girls ages 9-18, preferably starting at 11-12 years of age. Women ages 19-26 may also get the vaccine, but for the greatest benefit, it should be given before girls or women become sexually active.

Skin cancer

Anyone who spends time in the sun can get skin cancer. People with fair skin, especially those with blond or red hair, are more likely to get it than people with darker coloring. People who have had a close family member with melanoma and those who had bad sunburns before age 18 are more likely to get skin cancer.

What you can do

Most skin cancers can be prevented by staying out of the midday sun. When in the sun, wear hats with brims, long-sleeve shirts, sunglasses, and use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on all exposed skin. If you have children, protect them from the sun and don’t let them get sunburned. Be aware of all moles and spots on your skin, and report any changes to a doctor right away. Have a skin exam during your regular health check-ups.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is more likely to occur as women get older. Women who have never had children, who have unexplained infertility, or who had their first child after age 30 may be at increased risk for this cancer. Women who have used estrogen alone as hormone replacement therapy are also at increased risk. Women with a personal or family history of hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), ovarian cancer, or breast cancer are also more likely to have this disease. But women who do not have any of these conditions can still get ovarian cancer.

What you can do

At this time, there are no good tests for finding ovarian cancer early. A Pap test does not find ovarian cancer. But there are some tests that might be used in women who have a high chance of having ovarian cancer. You should see a doctor right away if you have:

  • Ongoing abdominal (belly) swelling
  • Digestive problems (including gas, loss of appetite, and bloating)
  • Abdominal pain
  • A feeling like you need to urinate all the time
  • Pelvic pain
  • Back pain
  • Leg pain.

A pelvic exam should be part of a woman’s regular health exam. Also talk to a doctor about your risk for ovarian cancer and whether there are tests that may be right for you.

The best defense against cancer

Early detection – finding a cancer early, before it has spread – gives you the best chance to do something about it. Knowing about these cancers and what you can do to help reduce your cancer risk can save your life.

Take control of your health and reduce your cancer risk.

  • Stay away from tobacco.
  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Get moving with regular physical activity.
  • Eat healthy with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink (if you drink at all).
  • Protect your skin.
  • Know yourself, your family history, and your risks.
  • Get regular check-ups and cancer screening tests.

For information on how to reduce your cancer risk and other questions about cancer, please call us anytime, day or night, at 1-800-227-2345 or visit us online at www.cancer.org.

Last Medical Review: 04/16/2014
Last Revised: 10/29/2014