Common Cancers in Women

Common Cancers in Women: How to Reduce Your Risk


You can reduce your risk of getting cancer by adopting a healthy lifestyle, paying attention to how your body feels and looks, and having regular checkups. Being aware of some of the characteristics to watch for can be helpful.

The risk of ovarian cancer is low, but increases with age. A woman has a one-in-70 lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, this disease is often diagnosed late in its development as the symptoms associated with it are often nonspecific and thus it causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive system cancer. Factors that increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer include: infertility, high-fat diet, personal history of breast or colon cancer, endometriosis, advancing age (women older than 60 years have the highest risk), and 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 until it is in an advanced stage. There is no good test to screen for cancer of the ovary. Your doctor may be able to feel a cyst on one or both ovaries but very few of these cysts will prove to be cancer. Still they should be checked by your doctor. Warning signs of this cancer type include: discomfort in the pelvic area and indigestion, gas, or bloating that cannot be explained; abnormal vaginal bleeding; swelling of the abdomen. The best way to monitor for this cancer is to have yearly well exams.

Uterine cancer most commonly occurs in the lining of the uterus. 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 years. It is rare in women younger than 40 years. 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 (prior to a hysterectomy); not giving birth; menopause after age 52 years; obesity and related conditions such as high blood pressure; diabetes or disorders such as thyroid or gall bladder disease; use of tamoxifen; having endometrial hyperplasia; other inherited cancers, such as certain types of colon cancer. Also at risk are women who do not ovulate and often have irregular or missed periods

Warning signs of endometrial cancer include bleeding after menopause, abnormal bleeding or discharge between periods, and prolonged and heavy bleeding during periods. Doctors do not routinely screen for endometrial cancer as it is usually detected early if the warning signs of abnormal bleeding are evaluated. If you have warning signs of this cancer, your doctor may recommend biopsies, ultrasounds or minor surgery to determine the source of bleeding and detect if cancer is present.

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for women in the United States, but that has improved due to the Pap test, which helps find problems early. There may be no warning signs of early cervical cancer. Signs of more advanced cervical cancer may include unusual discharge from the vagina, abnormal bleeding, or bleeding after sex. Doctors screen for cervical cancer with routine pelvic exams and pap smears. The interval recommended for a pap smear varies based on an individual patient’s history. Recently, HPV tests have been used in conjunction with pap smears to evaluate women at risk. Your gynecologist can provide more information as to whether this test would be of benefit to you.

Many cancers are linked to lifestyle factors. Making these changes in your lifestyle will improve your health and some may help prevent cancer. To reduce your risk of cancer: do not smoke; limit your intake of fat (especially saturated fat 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.

A healthy lifestyle, screening tests, and regular check-ups can help lower your risk of cancer. Many types of cancer can be cured if they are treated early. Being aware of the types of cancer and how to prevent them or detect them early can help protect your health.