Common cancers in women

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Uterine Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

About the uterus

The pear-shaped uterus is hollow and located in a woman’s pelvis between the bladder and rectum. The uterus is also called the womb. It is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant. The uterus has 3 sections: the narrow, lower section called the cervix; the broad section in the middle called the isthmus; and the dome-shaped top section called the fundus. The wall on the inside of the uterus has 2 layers of tissue: endometrium (inner layer) and myometrium (outer layer), which is muscle tissue.

During a woman’s childbearing years, her ovaries typically release an egg every month and the lining of the uterus grows and thickens in preparation for pregnancy. If the woman does not get pregnant, this thick lining passes out of her body through her vagina, a process known as menstruation. This process continues until menopause, when a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs.

About uterine cancer

Uterine cancer is the most common cancer occurring in a woman’s reproductive system. Uterine cancer begins when healthy cells in the uterus change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor can grow but generally will not spread into other tissues.

Noncancerous conditions of the uterus include:

  • Fibroids: Benign tumors in the muscle of the uterus

  • Benign polyps: Abnormal growths in the lining of the uterus

  • Endometriosis: A condition in which endometrial tissue, which usually lines the inside of the uterus, is found on the outside of the uterus or other organs.

  • Endometrial hyperplasia: A condition in which there is an increased number of cells and glandular structures in the uterine lining. Endometrial hyperplasia can have either normal or atypical cells and simple or complex glandular structures. The risk for developing cancer in the lining of the uterus is higher when endometrial hyperplasia has atypical cells and complex glands.

There are 2 major types of uterine cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma. This type makes up more than 80% of uterine cancers. It develops from cells in the endometrium. This cancer is commonly called endometrial cancer. One common endometrial adenocarcinoma is called endometrioid carcinoma, and treatment varies depending on the grade of the tumor, how far it goes into the uterus, and the stage or extent of disease (see Stages and Grades). Less common types of uterine cancers include serous, clear cell, and carcinosarcoma.

  • Sarcoma. This type of uterine cancer develops in the supporting tissues of the uterine glands or in the myometrium, which is the uterine muscle. Sarcoma accounts for about 2% to 4% of uterine cancers. In most situations, sarcomas are treated differently from adenocarcinomas. Types of endometrial sarcoma include leiomyosarcoma, endometrial stromal sarcoma, and undifferentiated sarcoma. Learn more about sarcoma.

Cancer confined to the uterine cervix is treated differently from uterine cancer; learn more about cervical cancer. The rest of this section covers the more common endometrial (adenocarcinoma) cancer.

About genetics and family history and uterine cancer

A higher risk for uterine cancers can be inherited, meaning it is passed from generation to generation, or may skip a generation to appear in the next. This happens about 5% of the time. The syndrome most commonly associated with inherited uterine cancer is called Lynch syndrome. Lynch syndrome is also associated with several other types of cancer, including types of colon, kidney, bladder, and ovarian cancers.

When cells divide and multiply, DNA errors can occur. There are 6 proteins in the body that fix these errors. If 1 of these proteins does not work properly, errors in the DNA can accumulate and yield enough DNA damage that cancer may develop. This problem with DNA repair is called mismatch repair defect (dMMR). dMMR is the main sign of Lynch syndrome.

Cancer can be tested for Lynch syndrome through a special staining process called immunohistochemistry (IHC). If IHC shows that your cancer lacks 1 of these DNA repair proteins or if you have a family history of a cancer associated with Lynch syndrome, discuss this with your doctor and/or talk with a genetic counselor. Family members may wish to be tested, too. People affected by Lynch syndrome should tell their doctors so they can receive increased screening for Lynch-associated cancers. Other family members may consider preventive surgery for uterine and ovarian cancer.

If you have uterine cancer, ask your doctor if the cancer can be tested for Lynch syndrome and other possible inherited conditions. Learn more about Lynch syndrome in another section on this website.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore this related item. Please note that this link will take you to another section on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to uterine cancer. This free fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with uterine cancer and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.

While there is no sure method for avoiding cancer, understanding risk factors can help you make decisions about prevention and screening for early signs of disease. As we recognize National Women’s Health Week, here’s a look at the five most common cancers in women* and steps you can take to help find these diseases early:

1. Breast cancer

Approximately 246,000 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016

As with most cancers, the best way to fight breast cancer is to find it early. Dana-Farber experts recommend following the American Cancer Society mammogram guidelines:

  • Women age 40-44 should have the option to start annual mammograms if they choose to do so.
  • Women age 45-54 who are at average risk should undergo yearly mammograms.
  • Women age 55+ who are at average risk should undergo mammograms every two years.

In general, women who are at increased risk of breast cancer should begin screening at age 40 (or earlier in some cases) and should have annual mammograms. Factors that can increase breast cancer risk include:

  • Inherited genetic abnormalities, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Certain benign breast conditions, such as dense breast tissue.

It is important that women have a conversation with their doctor about their risk of breast cancer as well as the risks and benefits of screening.

2. Lung cancer

Approximately 106,000 new cases will be diagnosed in U.S. women in 2016

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. The number one risk factor for the disease is smoking; if you smoke, talk with your doctor about how you can quit. It’s never too late to quit. You can also call the national Smokers’ Helpline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) for programs in your state.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual lung cancer screenings for anyone between the ages of 55-80 if you’ve had a 30 pack-year smoking history (meaning about a pack a day for 30 years); are a current smoker; or if you’ve quit within the past 15 years. Screenings consist of a low-dose CT scan.

Although smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, anyone with lungs can get the disease. In fact, lung cancer in never-smokers is the sixth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Symptoms can go beyond trouble breathing and can include a lingering cough, chest discomfort, wheezing, hoarseness and bloody mucus. If you have any of these symptoms or believe you may be at risk for lung cancer, speak with your doctor about a screening and prevention plan.

3. Colorectal cancer

Approximately 63,000 new cases will be diagnosed in U.S. women in 2016

While colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among all women, it is the second most common cancer among Hispanic women. Risk factors can include age (most cases are diagnosed in people over 50), a history of polyps, a diet heavy in red meat, having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or a family history of colorectal cancer.

Screening for colorectal cancer is highly effective and when found early, colorectal cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer. Dana-Farber experts recommend the following guidelines:

  • Ages 18-39: Screening is not necessary unless you have IBD, a family history of the disease, or a hereditary syndrome such as Lynch syndrome. Speak with your doctor about the pros and cons of screening and whether it’s right for you.
  • Ages 40-49: Review your risks with your doctor. You may need to begin screening if you’re at increased risk or you’ve had polyps in the past.
  • Ages 50+: Everyone should be screened. Screenings can include a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy and/or annual stool occult blood test. Speak with your doctor about which test is right for you.

If you have a family history of colon cancer, especially if the diagnoses come at a young age and across several generations, you may want to speak with your doctor about genetic counseling and testing.

4. Uterine/endometrial cancer

Approximately 60,000 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2016

Women who are age 55 and older are most at risk for uterine/endometrial cancer. Risk factors can also include taking estrogen without progesterone, obesity, taking tamoxifen for breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, and having a family history of cancers or Lynch syndrome.

To help catch this cancer early, it’s important for women to look for signs and symptoms, which can include bleeding or discharge not related to menstruation, difficult or painful urination, pelvic pain, or pain during intercourse. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, speak with your doctor right away.

In addition, women who have been diagnosed with Lynch syndrome should speak with their doctor about annual testing for uterine/endometrial cancer, such as endometrial biopsies, by age 35.

5. Thyroid cancer

Approximately 49,000 new cases will be diagnosed in U.S. women in 2016

Women between the ages of 25 and 65 are most at risk for thyroid cancer. Other risk factors can include being exposed to radiation to the head and neck area, having a history of a goiter, or having a family history of thyroid cancer. Some inherited syndromes can also predispose people to thyroid cancer, including multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A and type 2B.

Thyroid cancer symptoms can include a lump in the neck, trouble breathing, trouble swallowing, or hoarseness. Thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable cancers if caught early, so women should see their doctor if they notice any concerning symptoms. Learn more about what to look for and what a thyroid lump feels like.

*Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common cancers in the United States, however, they are not tracked by central cancer registries.

Statistics and additional prevention information provided by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER) Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2013.

Cancers: Leading Cancers in Women, Men, & Children

Leading Cancers in Women, Men, & Children

For Women: Breast cancer is the leading type of cancer developing new each year women in the US. Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer developing each year in women. Lung cancer is far and away the leading cause of death from cancer in women in the USA. Cancers of the colon and rectum is third most common among white women. The number 2 and 3 cancers are reversed among black and Asian/Pacific Island women. For all women, the fourth leading cancer is cancer of the uterus.

For Men: Prostate cancer is the leading cancer diagnosed in men in the US each year. It is followed by lung cancer and then colorectal cancer. The fourth most common cancer is race-dependent. It is bladder cancer for white men, cancer of the mouth and throat for black men; and stomach cancer for Asian/Pacific Island men. Lung cancer remains the most common cause of cancer death in men in the USA.

For Children: The most common malignancies in childhood are leukemia, followed by brain tumors, and lymphoma.

For more in-depth information, please see the following areas: Centers

  • Prostate Cancer Center
  • Breast Cancer Center

Latest Cancer Incidence Report Shows Prostate Leading Cancer Among Men, Breast Cancer Leads for Women

The most comprehensive federal report available on state-specific cancer incidence rates for the first time includes information on Asians/Pacific Islanders as well as a new section on childhood cancers. U.S. Cancer Statistics: 2017 data from the Cancer Facts and Figures 2017 from the American Cancer Society and available at cancer.org. Reports on the data from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shows prostate cancer is the leading cancer overall in men in the United States and breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in U.S.

Some major findings of the report include

  • Prostate cancer is the leading cancer affecting men of all races in the United States, followed by lung cancer and colorectal cancer;
  • The fourth most common cancer was urinary bladder cancer for white men; cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx for black men; and stomach cancer for Asian/Pacific Islander men.
  • Breast cancer is the leading cancer among women of all races in the United States;
  • Among white women, lung cancer is the second most common cancer and colorectal is the third most common cancer. Among black and Asian/Pacific Islander women, colorectal cancer and lung cancer are the second and third most common cancers, respectively;
  • The fourth leading cancer among women of all races in the United States is cancer of the uterus, not including cervical cancer;
  • The most common childhood cancers are leukemias, followed by cancer of the central nervous system, and lymphomas and reticuloendothelial neoplasms (specific white blood cell cancers).

Racial and ethnic differences in cancer incidence

  • Overall, cancer incidence rates are higher for whites and blacks than for Asians/Pacific Islanders;
  • Among the leading cancers, prostate cancer among black men is 1.5 times higher than among white men, and 2.7 times higher than among Asians/Pacific Islanders;
  • Breast cancer among white women is about 1.2 times higher than among black women, and 1.7 times higher than among Asians/Pacific Islanders.

Geographic differences in cancer incidence**

  • The District of Columbia has the highest incidence rate of prostate cancer, and Arizona has the lowest;
  • Washington state has the highest incidence of female breast cancer; New Mexico has the lowest;
  • Kentucky has the highest incidence rate of lung cancer for men, and Nevada has the highest rate for women. Utah has the lowest incidence rate of lung cancer for both men and women;
  • Rhode Island has the highest incidence rate of colorectal cancer among men, and Alaska has the highest incidence rate among women. New Mexico has the lowest incidence rate of colorectal cancer for both men and women.

*The following points should be kept in mind when interpreting geographic incidence rates: 1.) States in which a high percentage of the population receive cancer screenings will have more diagnosed cancer cases than states in which a low percentage of the population is screened; and 2.) Relative rankings based on incidence rates do not reflect important factors such as mortality rates that contribute to cancer burden.

United States Cancer Statistics: 2000 Incidence provides a basis for individual states and researchers to describe the variability in cancer incidence rates across different populations and to target certain populations for evidence-based cancer control programs. Future United States Cancer Statistics reports will include data for other racial and ethnic populations.

Cancer rates usually have some uncertainty associated with them and are updated as more information becomes available from registries and as better estimates of state and regional populations become available from the U.S. Census Bureau. The process of recalculating cancer rates is a standard practice.

Cancer and Women

Jackie: Taking Action for My Daughter

“I found out that I was BRCA 1 positive,” Jackie says in this video. “I decided to have my ovaries removed. At first it was very scary, but it became empowering. doesn’t have to be my destiny.”

Learn your family history of cancer and what you can do to lower your cancer risk.

Jackie has a family history of cancer. Several relatives on her father’s side of the family had breast or ovarian cancer at an early age. Her doctor encouraged her to see a genetic counselor.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to know. I’m not taking this test,’” Jackie said. “I thought about it. I could lose my daughter and not be here for her. I took the test.

“I found out that I was BRCA 1 positive,” Jackie says. “The genetic counselor laid out a couple of options for me. I decided to have my ovaries removed.

“At first it was very scary, but it became empowering. doesn’t have to be my destiny. I’m going to watch my kid grow up!”

Do You Know Your Family History of Cancer?

Jackie was able to take steps to lower her cancer risk because she knew cancer runs in her family. If you have a family history of breast, ovarian, uterine, or colorectal cancer, you may have a higher risk of getting cancer yourself.

Do you know if cancer runs in your family? Family gatherings like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduations, family reunions, and holidays are good opportunities to find out. When you get together with relatives, try to find some time to ask—respectfully—about family members’ cancer history. If you have had cancer, share your own story.

The Top 5 Cancers Affecting Women

A cancer diagnosis is often linked to family medical history, lifestyle choices, or something in the environment. And while you can’t control your family history or your whole environment, healthy lifestyle habits such as a good diet, regular physical activity, weight control, and quitting smoking if you’re prone to lighting up are all within your control.

“Risk factors are individualized, but it’s important to know that there are things you can do to lower your risk,” says Daniel McFarland, DO, a medical oncologist with the thoracic oncology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and an instructor in the center’s department of medicine.

Given that approximately 852,630 women are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2017 — and approximately 282,500 women are expected to die from the disease, according to estimates published in the “Cancer Facts and Figures 2017” report published by the American Cancer Society (ACS) — understanding your risk factors and learning what you can do to modify them is key.

“Sometimes it comes down to the simple things, like reapplying sunscreen to prevent skin cancer if you’ve been outside for a while,” says Dr. McFarland. He recommends talking with your doctor about your own risk factors based on your family history and lifestyle. Knowing what you’re up against can help you devise a plan for what screenings you may need to get (and when), what dietary changes could benefit you, and more — all personalized for you. “Modifying one thing might be helpful for one person but not necessarily helpful for someone else,” he says.

Learn more about what might increase your risk for the top five cancers in women, and some steps you can take to reduce that risk.

1. Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is expected to account for 30 percent of female cancer cases and 14 percent of the 282,500 female cancer deaths projected for 2017. A woman’s odds of getting breast cancer are 1 in 8.

While there’s no one definitive way to prevent breast cancer — and many risk factors are beyond your control — being aware of the following most common risk factors can help you deal with those that are in your control.

  • Being a woman Breast cancer is about 100 times more common in women than in men.
  • Age Two out of three women with invasive breast cancer are 55 or older.
  • Family history Your risk is doubled if your mother, sister, or daughter has had breast cancer. Your risk is tripled if two immediate relatives have had it. “Screening guidelines vary a little based on family history, so talk to your doctor about what’s best for you,” McFarland says.
  • Your genes Between 5 and 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be caused by specific gene mutations that are hereditary, with BRCA1 and BRCA2 being the most common mutations linked to the disease.
  • Race White women are more susceptible to breast cancer than African-Americans, but African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer, partly because their tumors may grow faster and appear at a more advanced stage.
  • Dense breast tissue More fibrous and glandular tissue rather than more fatty tissue — due to age, menopausal status, certain drugs, pregnancy, and genetics — can increase breast cancer risk up to twofold and can make visualizing early cancers on a mammogram more difficult.
  • Previous radiation treatment to the chest Women who were previously treated for another cancer have a higher risk of breast cancer, particularly if they got the treatment when their breasts were still developing.
  • A greater than average number of menstrual periods (onset of menstruation before age 12, onset of menopause after age 55) slightly raises risk.
  • No pregnancies or a late first pregnancy (after age 30) minimally raises overall risk, though pregnancy may increase the risk of specific breast cancer subtypes, like triple-negative disease.
  • Birth control pills The level of risk appears to go back to normal 10 years after a woman stops taking the pill, however.
  • Past treatment with diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug once used to prevent miscarriage, mildly raises breast cancer risk.
  • Post-menopausal hormone therapy Avoiding this treatment decreases your risk of breast cancer.
  • Not breastfeeding may slightly increase breast cancer risk.
  • Being overweight (particularly after menopause) increases risk. McFarland says that working with a nutritionist to see how you can modify your diet may help you lose weight and reduce that risk. In addition, shedding pounds can reduce the amount of estrogen; breast cancer feeds on estrogen, and this hormone is more plentiful in people who are obese.
  • Lack of exercise has been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, so if you’re relatively sedentary, aim to move more. “You can’t go wrong with exercise,” says McFarland. “We’re getting close to having more data about that, and it all seems very encouraging.”
  • Heavy drinking Compared with nondrinkers, women who have one drink per day are at a small increased risk of breast cancer, while women who have two to three drinks per day have a 20 percent higher risk of developing the disease, according to ACS.
  • Red meat consumption has also been tied to breast cancer, though researchers aren’t sure if it can actually cause the disease, McFarland says. Consider eating more white meat and seafood if you’re at risk.

2. Lung and Bronchus Cancer

Lung and bronchus cancers are expected to account for 12 percent of female cancer cases and 25 percent of female cancer deaths in 2017. A woman’s odds of getting lung cancer are 1 in 17.

A look at the percentages of deaths among people diagnosed with this form of cancer shows just how deadly lung cancer is. Though breast cancer is much more prevalent among women than lung cancer, the latter is responsible for many more deaths. Most striking is our ability to lower those numbers: 80 percent of all lung cancers in women (and 90 percent in men) might be avoided if people didn’t smoke. Smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get or die from lung cancer than nonsmokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family history also plays a part.

Other factors that increase lung cancer risk include exposure to:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Radon gas
  • Asbestos
  • Arsenic (either inhaled or in drinking water)
  • Diesel exhaust
  • Air pollution

Besides following an exercise plan and a healthy diet, limiting your alcohol intake can also help lower lung cancer risk. And even if you are now a former smoker, if you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years, guidelines recommend that you get a specialized low-dose CT scan of your chest annually to look for any signs of the disease, McFarland says.

Radon can be a problem in your home if it’s able to seep through cracks in the walls or floors. Houses in the Northeast, southern Appalachia, the Midwest, and the northern plains tend to have higher levels of radon, but any home can be affected. Check the Environmental Protection Agency’s radon information page to see if you live in high-radon zone and to learn how you can test your home.

3. Colon and Rectal Cancer

Colon and rectal cancers account for 8 percent of all cancer cases and 8 percent of female cancer deaths. A woman’s odds of getting colon or rectal cancer are 1 in 24.

While colon and rectal cancers can occur in young adults and teenagers, the majority of cases are diagnosed in adults ages 50 and over. The average age at which women are diagnosed with colon cancer is 72 (and for men, the average age at diagnosis is 68), according to the American Society for Clinical Oncology. Besides age, there are several other risk factors, some of which can be controlled:

  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Having an inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Heavy drinking
  • A diet high in red or processed meat or low in fruits and vegetables
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Being African-American or being an Ashkenazi Jew (a Jew of Eastern European descent)

Early detection is a lifesaver, especially when it comes to colon and rectal cancers. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for abnormal cells to grow in the colon, which means that having regular colonoscopy screening tests to look for polyps and remove them before they become abnormal helps you avoid some of the most severe consequences of these cancers. Current guidelines recommend a colonoscopy at age 50, but talk with your doctor about your situation to see if you should get one sooner, McFarland advises.

Multiple studies have also shown that getting enough calcium — either via diet or a supplement — was linked to lower risk of colorectal cancers.

Limiting red and processed meats and increasing your fiber intake can also reduce risk. “In processed meats, the particles of food are so small that, literally as the food moves through the colon, the particles stay there,” says McFarland. And if the food has carcinogens, “you have greater exposure to carcinogens because they aren’t moving through the bowels as quickly,” he says. Fiber, on the other hand, quickly moves fecal matter through the colon, reducing your risk.

4. Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer accounted for 7 percent of all cancer cases, and 4 percent of female cancer deaths. A woman’s odds of getting uterine cancer are 1 in 36.

Uterine cancer (also known as endometrial cancer) is cancer in the lining of the uterus — the endometrium — and it’s the most common type of cancer that affects the female reproductive organs, making it more common than cervical cancer or ovarian cancers. Unlike cervical cancer, it’s not one of the gynecological cancers caused by HPV.

Hormonal changes, particularly related to estrogen, play a significant role in your risk for uterine cancer; as with breast cancer, uterine cancer can feed on estrogen. Some things that can affect hormone levels and increase uterine cancer risk include: taking estrogen after menopause, birth control pills, a higher number of menstrual cycles (over a lifetime), past or present use of tamoxifen for breast cancer, never becoming pregnant, being obese, and having certain ovarian tumors or polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Other factors that can increase a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer include:

  • A high-fat or high-calorie diet
  • Age
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of uterine cancer or colon cancer
  • A personal history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Endometrial hyperplasia, a thickening of the uterine lining

Use of a nonhormonal intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control has been linked to a lower risk of uterine cancer.

5. Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is expected to account for 5 percent of all cancer cases and 3 percent of all deaths in 2017. A woman’s odds of getting thyroid cancer are 1 in 57.

As several of the risk factors for thyroid cancer are outside of our control, it may not be possible to prevent most of the cases of this disease, according to ACS. But it’s still important to know what these risk factors are so that if you’re at increased risk of the disease, you can get the tests you need to diagnose and treat potential tumors early.

Factors that can increase thyroid cancer risk include:

  • Being female
  • Age (women are most often diagnosed in their 40s or 50s)
  • Some genetic mutations, like the RET gene (blood tests can determine if you have this gene, which you may have if you have a family history of medullary thyroid cancer)
  • Family history of medullary thyroid cancer, other thyroid cancers, familial adenomatous polyposis, Cowden disease, or Carney complex type I
  • A diet low in iodine
  • Exposure to radiation

Make all the lifestyle improvements you can, most of which involve simple changes to your diet and exercise habits, and you’ll increase your health and reduce your risk of cancers common to women.

Women and cancer

Overview

Historically, cancer affects women less frequently than men. The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer during her lifetime, while one in two men will receive the diagnosis. Women also tend to survive the disease more often than men.

Studies have found that these differences in incidence and outcome may be attributed to the fact that men are diagnosed with cancer more often in the first place, and to the fact that many of the lifestyle-related risk factors for cancer, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and eating fatty foods, have traditionally been more prevalent among men.

Whatever the cause, differences exist when it comes to men and women and cancer, and they often start with anatomy.

Female cancers

Some cancers only affect women because they develop in a woman’s reproductive system, which includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, vagina and vulva.

Gynecologic cancers include:

  • Uterine cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

Although breast cancer is not a disease that only affects women, it is the most common cancer—after skin cancer—affecting women in the United States. The cancer is, in fact, 100 times more common in women than in men.

Risk factors and prevention

Several factors increase a woman’s risk of developing a gynecologic or breast cancer. Some of these factors include:

  • A family history of breast, ovarian or uterine cancer
  • Childbirth after age 30 of first child
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Radiation exposure, particularly at an early age
  • Genetic mutations (for example, BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • An unhealthy weight

Preventing gynecologic or breast cancers isn’t always possible, but taking measures like eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular physical activity may help.

Screening and diagnosis

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) accounts for around 34,000 cancers each year. HPV infection is usually linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina in women, but also to certain head and neck cancers. For this reason, most cervical cancer screenings today include Pap and HPV tests, and both girls and boys are encouraged to get the HPV vaccine starting at age 11.

Mammography is the most common screening tool for breast cancer, but women with a high risk of the disease may be screened using an MRI.

Diagnostic tools used for gynecologic and breast cancers often include:

  • Imaging tests, like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, PET scans and ultrasounds
  • Lab tests, like blood work and advanced genomic testing
  • Pelvic exams
  • Pap tests
  • Colposcopies
  • Biopsies

Learn more about diagnostic procedures

10 cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore

Women may not notice certain cancer symptoms, or may attribute them to other, less serious causes. But when these symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, they may be signs of cancer. Some of these often-ignored symptoms include:

  • Blood in the stool, which may be a sign of colorectal cancer
  • Changes in the skin around the breast, which can be a sign of breast cancer
  • Unusual bleeding, which may be a sign of a gynecologic cancer
  • Bloating, which may be a sign of ovarian or uterine cancer
  • Chronic coughing, which may be a sign of lung cancer or leukemia
  • Stomach pain or nausea, which may be a sign of leukemia or esophageal, liver, pancreatic or colon cancer
  • Unexplained weight loss, which may be a sign of leukemia, lymphoma or esophageal, pancreatic, liver or colorectal cancer
  • Skin changes, which may be a sign of skin cancer
  • Unexplained bruises, which may be a sign of leukemia
  • Frequent fevers or infection, which may be a sign of leukemia

Cancer side effects and women

Each woman’s experience with cancer and its treatments is different, but many treatments carry the risk of affecting a woman’s fertility. For example, surgery for a gynecologic cancer may harm reproductive tissues and cause scarring, and chemotherapy may affect the ovaries’ ability to release eggs and estrogen. Whether a woman’s fertility is affected by treatments generally depends on many factors, such as her age at the time of treatment, the length of treatment and her overall health. These issues should be discussed with her doctor.

Other side effects women commonly experience include:

  • Difficulties with sexual function, such as vaginal dryness and less energy for sex
  • Body image issues, whether from hair loss or scars from breast cancer surgery

Learn more about integrative care

Cancer treatments and women

Treatment for women with a gynecologic or breast cancer typically depends on many factors, such as the type and stage of the disease, the potential side effects, the woman’s overall health and age, and whether she plans on having children in the future. Surgery is often the first-line treatment for most gynecologic and breast cancers.

Other treatment options may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy

Reconstructive surgery either during or after breast cancer surgery may also be a treatment option for women with the disease.

Cancer in Australia statistics

All cancers in Australia

The following material has been sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Cancer is a diverse group of several hundred diseases in which some of the body’s cells become abnormal and begin to multiply out of control. The abnormal cells can invade and damage the tissue around them, and spread to other parts of the body, causing further damage and eventually death.

All cancers combined incorporates ICD-10 cancer codes C00–C97 (Malignant neoplasms of specific sites), D45 (Polycythaemia), D46 (Myelodysplastic syndromes), and D47.1, D47.3, D47.4 and D47.5 (Myeloproliferative diseases); but excludes basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the skin. BCC and SCC, the most common skin cancers, are not notifiable diseases in Australia and are not reported in the Australian Cancer Database.

Estimated number of new cancer cases diagnosed in 2019

144,713 = 78,081 males + 66,632 females

Estimated number of deaths from cancer in 2019

49,896 = 28,070 males + 21,826 females

Chance of surviving at least 5 years (2011–2015)

69%

People living with cancer at the end of 2014 (diagnosed in the 5 year period 2010 to 2014)

431,704

New cases

In 2015, there were 131,452 new cases of cancer diagnosed in Australia (71,959 males and 59,493 females). In 2019, it is estimated that 144,713 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia (78,081 males and 66,632 females). In 2019, it is estimated that the risk of an individual being diagnosed with cancer by their 85th birthday will be 1 in 2 for both males and females. The estimated 10 most common cancers diagnosed in 2019 are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Estimated most common cancers diagnosed, 2019

Notes

  • Data sourced from AIHW 2018 Cancer Data in Australia, ACIM books, and Cancer in Australia 2019 report and supplementary data tables
  • More information about incidence rates for the most common cancers diagnosed can be found on the NCCI website in the ‘Cancer incidence’ section (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/diagnosis/cancer-incidence/cancer-incidence)

In 2015, the age-standardised incidence rate was 487 cases per 100,000 persons (558 for males and 427 for females). In 2019, it is estimated that the age-standardised incidence rate will be 483 cases per 100,000 persons (541 for males and 434 for females). The incidence rate for all cancers combined is expected to generally increase with age.

Figure 2. Age-standardised incidence rates for all cancers combined, 1982 to 2015, by sex

Notes

  • Data sourced from AIHW 2018 Cancer Data in Australia, ACIM books, and Cancer in Australia 2019 report and supplementary data tables
  • More information about incidence rates for all cancers combined over time, by age, sex, Indigenous status, remoteness, and socioeconomic status (SES) can be found on the NCCI website in the ‘Cancer incidence’ section (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/diagnosis/cancer-incidence/cancer-incidence)

The number of new cases of cancer diagnosed increased from 47,462 (25,425 males and 22,037 females) in 1982 to 131,452 in 2015. Over the same period, the age–standardised incidence rate increased from 384 new cases per 100,000 persons (473 for males and 328 for females) in 1982 to 487 cases per 100,000 persons in 2015.

Deaths

In 2016, there were 45,782 deaths from cancer in Australia (25,910 males and 19,872 females). In 2019, it is estimated that there will be 49,896 deaths (28,070 males and 21,826 females). In 2019, it is estimated that the risk of an individual dying from cancer by their 85th birthday will be 1 in 5 (1 in 4 males and 1 in 6 females). The estimated 10 most common causes of cancer death in 2019 are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Estimated most common causes of cancer death, 2019

Notes

  • Data sourced from AIHW 2018 Cancer Data in Australia, ACIM books, and Cancer in Australia 2019 report and supplementary data tables
  • More information about mortality rates for the most common causes of cancer death can be found on the NCCI website in the ‘Cancer mortality’ section (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/outcomes/cancer-mortality/cancer-mortality)

In 2016, the age-standardised mortality rate was 160 deaths per 100,000 persons (199 for males and 129 for females). In 2019, it is estimated that the age-standardised mortality rate will be 159 deaths per 100,000 persons (195 for males and 130 for females). The mortality rate for cancer is expected to generally increase with age.

Figure 4. Age-standardised mortality rates for all cancers combined, 1968 to 2016, by sex

Notes

  • Data sourced from AIHW 2018 Cancer Data in Australia, ACIM books, and Cancer in Australia 2019 report and supplementary data tables
  • More information about mortality rates for all cancers combined over time, by age, sex, Indigenous status, remoteness, and socioeconomic status (SES) can be found on the NCCI website in the ‘Cancer mortality’ section (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/outcomes/cancer-mortality/cancer-mortality)

The number of deaths from cancer increased from 17,032 (9,541 males and 7,491 females) in 1968 to 45,782 in 2016. Over the same period, the age-standardised mortality rate decreased from 199 deaths per 100,000 persons (258 for males and 159 for females) in 1968 to 160 deaths per 100,000 in 2016.

Survival

In 2011–2015, individuals diagnosed with cancer had a 69% chance (68% for males and 70% for females) of surviving for five years compared to their counterparts in the general Australian population. Between 1986–1990 and 2011–2015, five-year relative survival from cancer improved from 50% to 69%.

Figure 5. 5-year relative survival from all cancers combined, 1986–1990 to 2011–2015, by sex

Notes

  • Data sourced from AIHW 2018 Cancer Data in Australia, ACIM books, and Cancer in Australia 2019 report and supplementary data tables
  • More information about 5-year relative survival rates for all cancers combined over time, by age, sex, Indigenous status, remoteness, and socioeconomic status (SES) can be found on the NCCI website in the ‘Relative survival rate’ section (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/outcomes/relative-survival-rate/5-year-relative-survival)

Prevalence

At the end of 2014, there were 109,906 people living who had been diagnosed with cancer that year, 431,704 people living who had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous 5 years (from 2010 to 2014) and 1,082,511 people living who had been diagnosed with cancer in the previous 33 years (from 1982 to 2014).

For more information on cancer data, see the NCCI website

The National Cancer Control Indicators (NCCI) are a set of indicators across the continuum of cancer care, from Prevention and Screening through to Diagnosis, Treatment, Psychosocial care, Research and Outcomes. The NCCI website allows users to see visual representations of data on each indicator through interactive charts.

Women and cancer

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