Cancers which affect women and how to reduce your risk
By Cancer Council NSW
Was your new year’s resolution to drink less, quit smoking, eat healthier or do more exercise? This Women’s Health Week, we’re looking at how these healthy habits can reduce your risk of some cancers that affect women. We’ll also cover what you need to know to catch cancer earlier and improve your chances of surviving a cancer diagnosis.
There’s a lot to take in, so remember you don’t need to read it all at once. It’s also important to note that the information in this blogpost is general in nature. If you have any questions about your personal situation, we recommend that you talk to your doctor or call our Information and Support line on 13 11 20.
Take action and lower your overall cancer risk
About 1 in 3 cancer cases can be prevented. And the vast majority of these preventable cancers are caused by the same common risk factors. This means that you can significantly lower your risk of a cancer diagnosis by taking action today:
Quit smoking or avoid it entirely
Protect yourself from UV radiation (yes, even on cloudy days)
Be physically active
Limit your alcohol intake
Limit your consumption of red and processed meats
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
Eat a variety of wholegrain, wholemeal and other high-fibre foods
In the meantime, read on to learn more about the most common cancers that affect Australian women and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Why you need to get to know your breasts
The key to detecting breast cancer early is getting to know what is normal for your breasts. To do this, make sure to examine your breasts in the mirror from time to time. This will make it easier to notice any new or unusual changes.
What are you looking for? There are many types of breast cancer that can affect the breast ducts, breast lobules or nipples. But in general, we recommend that you see your doctor straight away if you notice any of the following:
A new lump or lumpiness, especially if it’s only in one breast
Changes in the size or shape of the breast
Changes to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcers, sores, redness or inversion
A clear or bloody discharge from the nipple that occurs without squeezing
Changes in the skin of the breast, such as redness or dimpling
Swelling or discomfort in the armpit
Persistent unusual pain in the breast
In Australia, we also have a breast cancer screening program, which involves having a free mammogram every two years starting from when you turn 50. Some women under the age of 50 can also access free mammograms if, for example, they have a close relative who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. To learn more about breast screening, visit Cancer Screening Australia or BreastScreen NSW.
To learn more about the causes, symptoms, risk factors and treatment options of breast cancer, visit our breast cancer homepage.
What you can do about cervical cancer
About 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer every day. But because we know what causes cervical cancer, we also know how to prevent it or detect it early and stop it in its tracks.
HPV (or human papillomaviruses) are responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer, and the current vaccine protects against 90% of cervical cancer-related HPV strands. This makes it vital that girls (and boys) are vaccinated against HPV before they become sexually active through the national HPV immunisation program.
Besides the HPV vaccine, the best way to detect precancerous changes and early cervical cancer is to have regular cervical screening tests. We encourage all women aged 25-74 to have a screening test every 5 years. To learn more about Australia’s cervical screening program, visit Cancer Council’s new website www.cervicalscreening.org.au.
In between screening tests, we encourage you to be aware of potential symptoms of cervical cancer. Speak to your doctor if you notice, for example, vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or during or after sexual intercourse.
Finally, it is still important to note that the other risk factors for cervical cancer include the following:
Smoking and passive smoking
Having a weakened immune system (as the immune system helps rid the body of HPV)
Long-term use (5+ years) of oral contraceptive (the pill). Note that this risk is very small and the pill can actually also help protect against other types of cancer, such as uterine and ovarian cancers. We recommend you talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.
Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the female hormone oestrogen
We all learnt it in school, but the facts remain the same. The simplest and most effective way to lower your risk of skin cancer and melanoma is to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This applies in overcast conditions and before your skin begins to burn.
You might want to enjoy the warmer weather as we get into spring, but we recommend you remember to take these steps to lower your long-term risk of skin cancer:
Slip on clothing that covers your shoulders, arms and legs. For example, shirts with collars, high necks and sleeves; and pants, long skirts or long shorts
Slop on some sunscreen – SPF30+ or SPF50+ broad spectrum and water-resistant works bets! Apply 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every 2 hours.
Slap on a broad-brimmed, bucket or legionnaire-style hat that protects your face, ears and neck
Seek shade whenever you can
Slide on some sunnies that meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 and fit your face well
To catch skin cancer early, it’s crucial to get to know your skin. You should see your doctor if you notice a new or unusual spot, lump or freckle, a sore that doesn’t heal, or a spot that has changed colour, size, shape, elevation, has become itchy or started bleeding.
Don’t be squeamish – how to lower your risk of bowel cancer
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. But together, we can change this by making healthy choices. Here are some changes you can make today:
Eating more foods containing dietary fibre
Eating less red and processed meat
Being physically active
Limiting your alcohol intake
Maintaining a healthy weight
Additionally, not smoking can all reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer by almost 50%
Although most people with bowel cancer are over the age of 50, you may be at higher risk if you have a history of bowel polyps, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, or if a close relative of yours has been diagnosed with it under the age of 55. If you’re under 50 and feel you may be at a higher risk of bowel cancer, please speak to your doctor.
We also encourage you to discuss your bowel cancer risk with your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:
Blood in the stools, in the toilet bowl or on the toilet paper
Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, diarrhoea, or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
A change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements (e.g. narrower stools or mucus in stools)
A feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen or a strange sensation in the rectum, often during a bowel movement
A feeling that the bowel hasn’t emptied completely after a bowel movement
Unexpected weight loss
Weakness or fatigue
Rectal or anal pain
A lump in the rectum or anus
Abdominal pain or swelling
A low red blood cell count (anaemia), which can cause tiredness and weakness
A blockage in the bowel (this is rare)
Not everyone with these symptoms has bowel cancer. For example, other conditions like haemorrhoids, diverticulitis or an anal fissure can cause these changes. If you’d like to learn more about bowel cancer, please visit our bowel cancer section.
Finally, if you don’t have other risk factors, we encourage you to look out for your free bowel cancer screening kit, which will arrive in the mail on your 50th birthday (and every second birthday from then on). It’s a simple test that will give you the best chance of catching bowel cancer early, when it’s less likely to show symptoms. For more information on the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, call 1800 118 868 or visit Cancer Screening Australia.
What you need to know about lung cancer
While lung cancer is only the 4th most common cancer among women in Australia, it causes the most deaths. This is why we’re including it in this list.
Smoking causes roughly 65% of lung cancer cases in women (compared to 90% of cases in men). So, quitting smoking or avoiding it altogether is the best way you can lower your risk of lung cancer. Researchers are still working towards demystifying the remaining 35% of lung cancer cases. However, these are the other risk factors we know of so far:
Second-hand smoking – living with a smoker increases a non-smoker’s risk by 20-30%
Exposure to asbestos
Exposure to radioactive gas (Radon) or other elements during the processing of arsenic, cadmium, steel or nickel
Personal history of other lung diseases (e.g. lung fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, emphysema) or HIV infection
We encourage you to talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your lung cancer risk. Particularly, if you notice any of the following symptoms:
A persistent cough (lasting longer than 3 weeks)
A change in a cough
Coughing up blood
You can find more information on lung cancer’s symptoms, risk factors and treatment options in our website’s lung cancer section.
What we know about ovarian cancer
At present, the exact causes of ovarian cancer are still unknown. And sadly, ovarian cancer survival rates are still low: only around 46% of those diagnosed with ovarian cancer today will survive for five years or longer after diagnosis. This makes it important to keep in mind the risk factors we do know about:
Lifestyle factors – such as smoking and being overweight or obese
Age – ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50 or who are most-menopausal
Genetic factors – having a fault in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes or other similar genes, or having Lynch syndrome, which is a genetic condition
Family history – having one or more close blood relatives diagnosed with ovarian, breast, bowel or uterine cancers, or having Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry
Reproductive history – women who have not had children or who had children over the age of 35 may be slightly more at risk
Hormonal factors – including early puberty, late menopause, using oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for five years or more
Pressure, pain or discomfort in the abdomen, pelvis or back
Loss of appetite or feeling full quickly
Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, diarrhoea, passing urine more often, increased flatulence
Indigestion and nausea
Changes in menstrual pattern or bleeding after menopause
Pain during sex
If these symptoms are new for you, are severe or continue for more than a few weeks, keep a record of how often they occur and make an appointment to discuss them with your doctor. Ovarian cancer tends to show symptoms only when it is more advanced.
Cancer of the uterus (or uterine cancer) is the 5th most common cancer among women. However, like with ovarian cancer, we still don’t fully understand its causes. The best thing you can do is to know your body so you can recognise any changes and be aware of the symptoms, which include:
Unusual vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause
A smelly, watery discharge
Heavy, irregular periods after the age of 40
Studies have also identified a number of factors that could increase a woman’s risk of uterine cancer, which include:
Age – cancer of the uterus is most common in women over 50 or who are most-menopausal
Having endometrial hyperplasia
Never having children or being unable to have children
Starting periods early (before age 12)
Being overweight or obese
Having high blood pressure (hypertension)
A family history of uterine, ovarian, breast or bowel cancer
Inheriting a genetic condition such as Lynch syndrome or Cowden syndrome
Previous ovarian tumours or polycystic ovary syndrome
Taking oestrogen hormone replacement without progesterone
Taking tamoxifen, an anti-oestrogen drug used to treat breast cancer (however, the benefits for treating breast cancer with tamoxifen usually outweigh the risk of uterine cancer)
Many women who have these risk factors don’t get cancer of the uterus, and some women who do get it have none of these risk factors. If you are concerned about your personal risk, we encourage you to see your doctor.
For more information – including the different types of uterine cancer – please visit our uterine cancer page.
Thyroid cancer affects women more than men
The reason why we’d like to highlight thyroid cancer here is because women are almost three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men. In fact, thyroid cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women aged 25-29, and the third most common cancer in women aged 25-49.
The exact cause of thyroid cancer is unknown, but we do know that exposure to radiation (such as receiving radiotherapy treatment as a child) and a genetic mutation in the RET gene increases a person’s risk of thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer usually develops slowly, without many obvious signs or symptoms. However, some people experience one or more of the following:
A painless lump in the neck, which may grow gradually
Changes to the voice, e.g. hoarseness
Swollen lymph glands in the neck, which may slowly grow in size over months or years.
It’s important to note that thyroid cancer can often develop without obvious symptoms and presenting symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have thyroid cancer. For example, although a painless lump in the neck is the most common sign of thyroid cancer, thyroid lumps (or nodules) are common and are benign in 90% of adults. If you are concerned about any of these symptoms, we recommend that you speak with your doctor.
By demystifying these common cancers, we hope we’ve given you the tools you need to reduce your personal risk of a cancer diagnosis and increase your chances of catching cancer early. If you have any further questions about your cancer risk and what you can do about it, we encourage you to talk to your doctor or call us on 13 11 20.