Dr Abdulla El-Hossami. Medical Director Asia Pacific. Verita Life, Integrative Cancer Centre
Starting from the first menstruation cycle to menopause, the female body can go through many changes. Although it is normal to feel different sometimes, it is always better to ask your doctor about any changes happening as some of these changes could be the signs of cancer or other diseases.
Cancers affecting women mostly are breast, endometrial, cervical and ovarian cancers. Knowing about these cancers and what you can do to prevent them or find them early may help save your life.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women and the second most common cancer globally. In 2018 there were over 2 million new cases and the top 10 countries with the highest rates of breast cancer were Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, France, New Caledonia, Lebanon, Australia, UK, Italy and New Zealand1. Many other countries in Europe as well as US and Canada were also in the top 25.
There are a few well established risk factors for breast cancer. Ageing is directly proportional to your chances of getting breast cancer. Most breast cancer cases involve women of over 55 years old. Another risk factor is a positive family history. Having a first degree female relative with breast cancer doubles your risk of getting it. Likewise, having a personal history of breast cancer increases your risk 3 or 4 times more to develop a new breast cancer. Radiation or Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) exposure in the past raises the risk of developing breast cancer too. Other risk factors may include:
∙ Being overweight or obese
∙ Early menstruation
∙ Alcohol drinking
∙ Physical inactivity
∙ Tobacco smoking
∙ Certain breast changes.
Early detection of breast cancer – when it is still small, has not yet spread, and might be easier to treat – can help prevent further complications of the disease. Regular screening tests are always recommended as the most reliable way to detect breast cancer early.
According to the American Cancer Society, every woman between the age of 40 to 44, if they wish, should have the choice to start yearly breast cancer screening with a mammogram. While women age 45 to 54 should get it done every year. Women from 55 years of age can switch to a mammogram every 2 years, or can continue the yearly screening2.
Ovarian cancer is the second most prevalent gynaecological cancer in women and the one causing the most deaths in the US with an estimated 21,750 women confronted with the disease this year3.
The most important risk factors of ovarian cancer are age and family history of ovarian or breast cancer. Although it can occur at any age, it is more likely to happen as women get older. Other risk factors may include:
∙ Being overweight or obese
∙ Using talcum powder
∙ Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
∙ Having endometriosis.
So far there is no specific test or screening to detect ovarian cancer, but certain signs should not be ignored and should be reported to your doctor. These signs include:
∙ Abdominal (belly) swelling with weight loss
∙ Digestive problems (including gas, loss of appetite, and bloating)
∙ Abdominal or pelvic pain
∙ Feeling like you need to urinate (pee) all the time.
Endometrial cancer, sometimes called uterine cancer, is a type of cancer that begins in the endometrium which is the inner lining of the uterus.
Endometrial cancer is the most common type of cancer occurring in the reproductive organs of women. The American Cancer Society has estimated approximately 65,620 new cases of uterine cancer in the US by the end of this year4.
The risk of endometrial cancer increases by age and it is more likely to affect women above 60 years old. Other factors may include:
∙ Early menstruation, late menopause, or both
∙ Not having been pregnant
∙ Being obese
∙ Having had breast cancer or ovarian cancer
∙ Having received hormone replacement therapy for breast cancer.
There are no screening tests or examinations to detect endometrial cancer early in women who are at average risk and have no symptoms. However, every woman should be explained about the risk factors after menopause and should report if they have any unusual discharge, spotting, or abnormal vaginal bleeding. It is important to know the Pap test, which is very good at finding cancer of the cervix, sometimes can detect some early endometrial cancers although it is not a test for endometrial cancer5.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that arises from the cells of the cervix in women and it is the fourth most common type of cancer in women. The World Health Organization estimated 570,00 new cases of cervical cancer in 20186.
The most common cause of cervical cancer is HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). Other risk factors include:
∙ Having a weakened immune system
∙ Having history of a chlamydia infection
∙ Being overweight
∙ Being exposed to or taking certain hormone treatments.
Having regular screening tests can help find changes in the cervix that can be treated before they become cancer. A Pap test and an HPV DNA test are the two most popular methods to screen for cervical cancer. Diagnosis also involves a pelvic exam with a colposcope to check for any visible abnormal changes in the cervix.
As you can see these cancers share more or less the same risk factors. So, if you could avoid smoking, exercise regularly, follow healthy diet, stay at a healthy weight, avoid or limit alcohol consumption to not more than 1 drink per day, have regular health checkups, you should be able to reduce your chance of developing these cancers.
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