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Most Common Cancers in Women and How to Detect Them Early

Smiling Diverse Women

August 21, 2020

How common is cancer in women?

Cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by heart disease. To put it into perspective, 1 in 4 Americans will die from cancer.

Among women, after skin cancer, the most common type of cancer is breast cancer. 

While discussing cancer can be frightening, arming yourself with knowledge is empowering. By knowing the most common types of cancer in women, how to detect cancer early and the risk factors and lifestyle choices that may lead to developing cancer, you can focus on living a healthy life.

Here, we discuss crucial issues every woman needs to know to protect herself from developing the most common female cancers.

What are the most common cancers in women?

The most common types of cancer among women in the U.S. are skin, breast, lung, colorectal and uterine. Cervical and ovarian cancer affect only women and are also a significant cause of cancer worldwide. With early detection, cancer is more likely to be treated successfully.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women other than skin cancer. It occurs in the breast cells and can spread to the lymph nodes under the arms. In the U.S. this year, there will be an estimated 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women and 2,620 cases in men.

Risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing breast cancer include:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle
  • Not becoming pregnant
  • Not breastfeeding
  • Use of birth control, particularly oral contraceptives
  • Hormone therapy after menopause

There is no definite way to avoid breast cancer, but there are precautions you can take. Consume a healthy diet, be physically active, breastfeed if you have children and see your healthcare provider annually for routine screenings. Women, and men, who have a strong family history of breast cancer may want to have genetic testing to learn if they've inherited a mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Normally, BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that play a primary role in stopping abnormal cell growth in breasts, ovaries and other cells. If one of these genes is broken, it can increase the risk of developing cancer. When a parent carries a BRCA gene mutation, their male and female children have a 50% chance of inheriting it.

If you think you may have inherited a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation, a genetic counselor can provide testing and advise you and your family on your risk. The screening involves a simple blood test. About 1 in every 500 women in the United States has a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.

What are the common signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

If any of these breast or nipple changes occur, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider.

  • Breast lump
  • Nipple changes
  • Dimpling in your breast (like an orange peel)
  • Swollen breast
  • Lump in your underarm
  • Nipple discharge – particularly concerning is spontaneous or bloody discharge. Stimulation of the breasts, hormones, pregnancy and lactation can cause normal nipple discharge.
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (inward into the breast)
  • Red, itchy, scaly or thick skin on your breast

How does breast cancer start? 

  • Hereditary breast cancer can occur if you have inherited a genetic mutation in one of the BRCA genes from your parents.
  • Acquired breast cancer develops from changes that take place in the breast throughout your life. Acquired genetic mutations can result from radiation, cancer-causing chemicals and other unknown environmental factors.

Early detection of breast cancer in women

One of the best ways to screen for breast cancer is to visit your healthcare provider. By having an annual breast screening, you can take charge of your breast health. The University of Kansas Health System recommends all women begin screening mammograms at age 40

Schedule your mammogram.

We find early-stage breast cancer at a rate that exceeds the national benchmark. Schedule your mammogram online today or call 913-588-1227.

What is ovarian cancer?

Another common cancer in women is ovarian cancer, which is the abnormal growth of cells in the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Ovarian cancer occurs when cells grow out of control and form tumors on the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

The American Cancer Society projects 21,750 new cases of ovarian cancer in 2020. The following risk factors may increase your likelihood of developing ovarian cancer:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • History of talcum powder use in the genital area
  • Endometriosis
  • Hormonal replacement therapy 
  • Smoking
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • A positive family history of breast, uterine, cervical, bowel or ovarian cancer or Lynch syndrome

There is no screening available to detect ovarian cancer, but you may be at higher risk if you carry a genetic mutation known as BRCA1 or BRCA2. Talk with a genetic counselor to learn more and request genetic testing. 

What are the common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer?

  • Vaginal bleeding (past menopause)
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Lower back or abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Feeling full quickly
  • Difficulty eating
  • Nausea
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Menstrual changes
  • Weight loss
  • A change in bathroom habits
    • Frequent or urgent urination
    • Frequent or urgent bowel movements
    • Constipation

How does ovarian cancer start?

Ovarian cancer begins with tumors on or in the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Cancerous epithelial tumors are the most common type of ovarian cancer. The following are subtypes of ovarian carcinoma:

  1. Serous carcinoma
  2. Endometrioid carcinoma
  3. Clear cell carcinoma
  4. Mucinous carcinomas

Early detection of ovarian cancer in women

Early detection of ovarian cancer is challenging as cancer symptoms can be vague and are often not acute or intense. That’s why it is critical to know your body and listen to any changes. Trust yourself and schedule an appointment to see your gynecologic healthcare provider.

Those who are BRCA positive should see a gynecologic oncologist to perform additional screenings for ovarian cancer. Women with possible ovarian cancer symptoms can receive the following tests:

    • CA-125 blood draw: Evaluates your blood for a protein that is elevated in those with cancer. However, other reasons can cause it to become elevated like your menstrual cycle, endometriosis or pregnancy.
    • Transvaginal ultrasound: An ultrasound probe that is inserted into your vagina to examine your pelvic organs.

What is cervical cancer?

Another common cancer in women is cervical cancer. More than 500,000 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed worldwide in 2018. The ACS projects 13,800 new cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. in 2020.

The following risk factors increase your possibility of developing cervical cancer:

  • Contracting human papillomavirus or HPV (accounts for 90% or more of all cervical cancer cases)
  • Abnormal pap smear
  • Smoking
  • HIV or AIDS infection
  • Using birth control pills for more than 5 years
  • Giving birth to 3 or more children
  • Having multiple sex partners

There are ways to decrease your risk for cervical cancer:

  • HPV vaccine that protects against the high-risk types of HPV that cause vaginal, vulvar and cervical cancer
  • Quitting smoking (or never starting)
  • Using condoms for sexual intercourse

What are the common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer does not show signs or symptoms early on. However, as the disease advances, it can cause abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge (like after sex).

How does cervical cancer start?

Cervical cancer occurs as a result of a genetic change in the DNA of healthy cervical cells. The cells grow and multiply at an abnormal rate, eventually forming cancerous tumors. Most of the time, cancer is caused by HPV.

Early detection of cervical cancer in women

A Pap test and HPV screening can detect cervical cancer early. You should begin having a Pap test when you become sexually active or turn 21. You should have a Pap test every 3 years or combined Pap/HPV test every 5 years until age 65. You can also receive the HPV vaccine up to the age of 45. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn more about the HPV vaccine.

To perform the screening, your provider will collect a small sample of cervical cells:

  • The Pap smear looks for precancerous cell changes on the cervix that have the potential to become cervical cancer if left untreated.
  • The HPV test looks for the virus that causes abnormal cell changes to the cervix.

If any abnormalities are found during your screening exams, your healthcare provider will determine whether you need a follow-up screening or if you require additional testing.

What is skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer to occur in women. Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of skin cells and often occurs as a result of sun exposure. The most common types of skin cancer are:

  1. Basal cell carcinoma
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma
  3. Malignant melanoma

The ACS projects 100,000 new cases of melanoma in 2020. Some common risk factors increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer:

  • Exposure to UV rays (including sunlight and tanning beds)
  • Having light skin
  • Having blue or green eyes
  • Having blonde or red hair
  • Having a large number of moles

The best ways to prevent skin cancer are to avoid sunburn, use sunscreen and perform regular mole checks.

What are the common signs and symptoms of skin cancer?

  • Skin changes
  • Mole that gets bigger
  • Sore that doesn’t heal
  • Crusty red spot

How does skin cancer start? 

Skin cancer occurs in the cells of the top layer of skin. If the skin cells’ DNA becomes damaged, it can cause the cells to grow out of control. The buildup of cells eventually forms a tumor.

Early detection of skin cancer in women

Start by performing regular skin checks at home. Make sure to cover every square inch of your body, including your scalp, belly button, buttocks, underarms and between your fingers and toes.

If you notice any changes or become concerned, see a dermatologist to perform a skin exam. You can also ask them to complete a mole check if you are not sure whether any have changed. Performing a skin biopsy can catch skin cancer and treat it early.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer, a leading cancer in women, affects the lungs – 2 spongy organs that help you breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. The windpipe is called the trachea, which further breaks into the bronchia, bronchioles and alveoli. Lung cancer can occur in any of these locations.

For 2020, the ACS projects 228,820 new diagnoses of lung cancer.

The main risk factors for lung cancer are smoking or secondhand smoke. The best lifestyle choice to make is to quit smoking, never start smoking and avoid secondhand smoke at all costs. It’s never too late to quit smoking. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) to connect directly with your state's quit line and speak to a specially trained counselor to help you stop smoking.

What are the common signs and symptoms of lung cancer?

  • Shortness of breath
  • A prolonged and lasting cough
  • Chest pain
  • Bloody mucous

How does lung cancer start?

Lung cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in the lungs. As the cells continue to develop, they form a tumor. If the tumor spreads beyond the lungs, it is called metastases. Metastatic lung cancer is when lung cancer spreads beyond the lungs.

Early detection of lung cancer in women

The ACS recommends screening for current or former smokers ages 55-74. Talk with your healthcare provider about having an annual low-dose CT scan to determine your risk for lung cancer. Low-dose CT scans can identify lung cancer in its early stage, while it is still highly treatable.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer affects the large and small intestines, which includes the rectum. The following factors increase your risk for developing colorectal cancer:

  • Being African American
  • Being over age 50
  • Having a family history of colorectal cancer (more than 1 family member)
  • Having a family history of Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Having a personal history of polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Having chronic inflammatory intestinal disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease)

The following lifestyle factors may also increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer:

  • A low-fiber, high-fat diet
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Radiation therapy for cancer

Cancer can occur in any part of the colon:

  • Cecum
  • Ascending colon
  • Transverse colon
  • Descending colon
  • Sigmoid colon

In 2020, there will be an estimated 148,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in the U.S. 

  • When cancer is limited to the large bowel, it is colon cancer.
  • The rectum is the last few inches of the large intestine that starts at the end of your colon and ends when it reaches the short, narrow passage leading to the anus. If cancer occurs in this area, it is called rectal cancer.
  • When cancer involves both the rectum and the large intestine, it is colorectal cancer.

What are the common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Some symptoms can be confused with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal disease. However, if you notice any of the following, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Dark, bloody, thin or tarry stools from bleeding or obstruction in your GI tract.
  • Constipation or diarrhea or any other change in your stools
  • Significant abdominal pain or cramps
  • Weakness and fatigue unrelated to lifestyle
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Increased bowel movements due to a tumor that is on or near your intestines

How does colorectal cancer start?

Abnormal growths, called polyps, can form in the colon or rectum. These abnormal growths, left untreated, can turn into cancer and grow through the walls of the colon and into the rectum. If they spread to other areas in the body, it is known as metastatic cancer.

Early detection of colorectal cancer in women

Screening tests in several different ways:

  1. Stool test – checks your stool for signs of polyps or cancer annually
  2. Sigmoidoscopy – a short, thin, flexible, lighted tube inserted into your rectum every 5 years
  3. Colonoscopy – like a sigmoidoscopy, but a longer tube, to scope your intestines through your anus every 10 years

Screening guidelines broken down by age:

  • 18-39: Screening is not necessary unless you have a strong family history of colorectal cancer, Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis, or a condition like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
  • 40-49: Some colorectal cancer screening recommendations begin at age 45. Talk with your healthcare provider to see which test is best for you.
  • 50+: Colonoscopy every 10 years or as recommended by your healthcare provider.

These screening standards are for healthy adults. Depending on your particular situation, you may need to be tested more often. Determining what is right for you can be confusing because cancer screening recommendations vary. Talk with your healthcare provider to understand what's right for you.

What is uterine cancer?

Cancer of the uterine lining is also known as endometrial cancer. It is the most commonly diagnosed gynecologic malignancy. The uterus, or womb, is an organ that is hollow and pear-shaped. Menstrual cycles and fetal development occur here.

Uterine cancer is more likely to occur in women age 55 and over. In 2020, the ACS estimates 65,620 new cases of uterine cancer will be diagnosed. While there is no way to prevent uterine cancer, your risk may be less if you take oral contraceptives, use progesterone with your estrogen hormone replacement therapy and maintain a healthy weight.

Risk factors include:

  • Hormone replacement therapy (estrogen without progesterone)
  • Obesity
  • Taking tamoxifen for breast cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of cancer or Lynch syndrome

What are the common signs and symptoms of uterine cancer?

  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Spotting between periods
  • Bloody, malodorous discharge

How does uterine cancer start?

Uterine cancer occurs in the cells that form the lining of the uterus (endometrium). When the cells grow out of control and crowd out healthy cells, they can become cancerous.

Early detection of uterine cancer in women

Have regular screenings with your healthcare provider. The Pap test does not screen for endometrial cancer, so discuss warning signs with your healthcare provider if you are concerned.

If you experience symptoms, your healthcare provider can perform an endometrial biopsy, which involves collecting cells from your endometrial lining. The test is conducted with a pipette through your cervix.

Where should I seek cancer diagnosis and treatment for women?

The Women's Cancer Center at The University of Kansas Cancer Center is the ideal place to seek cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. The Women's Cancer Center specializes in breast and gynecologic cancers, and is committed to improving the delivery of cancer care. By choosing The University of Kansas Cancer Center for your care, you are choosing:

  • A top women’s cancer center
  • A National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center
  • Leading-edge research and treatment
  • Compassionate care teams
  • Comprehensive, whole-person care

Start your path today.

Your journey to health starts here. Call 913-588-1227 or request an appointment at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

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