Women's Health

Slash Your Cancer Risk--Today

There's been a ton of well-deserved attention on breast cancer, but we need to think beyond the pink—these five other types can pose serious threats to women too. The empowering news is: You can do a lot to outsmart them. (2014)

 

By Charlotte Huff

Before the famous breast-cancer symbol—the delicate pink ribbon—was created in 1991, the disease suffered from neglect. Now, with the pink-ifying of everything from perfume bottles to football helmets each October, most of us can't even remember that time. And that's a good thing: Bringing breast cancer to the forefront has yielded some big scientific wins, including 3-D mammography (a test that's recently been shown to improve detection and drive down nerve-racking false alarms). And women are way more vigilant about looking out for lumps. The payoff: 61 percent of tumors are now detected at a localized and thus more treatable stage.

Yet while breast-cancer awareness has skyrocketed, most of us remain somewhat in the dark when it comes to knowing which other forms of cancer pose the highest risk: In a recent survey, only 22 percent of people accurately pegged lung cancer as the biggest cancer killer of women.

Thankfully, time is on your side. Some cancers take 10 years or more to develop, which means there's a lot you can do now to help squelch the risk of getting sick later in life, says Graham Colditz, M.D., an associate director for prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. Here, what you need to know to help protect yourself from five dangerous types.

 

LUNG CANCER 

  • #1 cancer killer among women, responsible for 26 percent of female cancer deaths.
  • ​94,000 women are diagnosed each year; about 70,000 die from the disease.
  • 3,000: Number of nonsmokers who die every year from secondhand smoke.
  • ​10 percent of lung-cancer patients have never smoked cigarettes.

Biggest Risk Factors
Cigarettes are the top cause among smokers. For those who don't light up, exposure to radon—an odorless natural gas that can seep into your home through cracks in the foundation—tops the list.

Your Anti-C Strategy
If you don't smoke, don't start now. Sounds like a no-brainer, but recent research finds 41 percent of women spark up their first cigarette in their twenties or thirties. There's danger no matter what you puff: Cancer rates in those who smoke so-called light or low-tar cigarettes aren't any lower than in those who puff regular cigs. The only fix is to ditch the butts—the sooner, the better. Quitting by your mid-forties can extend your life by about a decade, say researchers. What else you can do:

Monitor Your Breathing. Lung CT scans aren't recommended until age 55, regardless of your smoking history, so see your M.D. if you have a nagging cough, unusual (and persistent) shortness of breath, or wheezing, or if you cough up blood.

Check Radon Levels in Your Home. DIY testing kits are available at home-improvement stores, or you can call a home inspector to perform the service.

 

SKIN CANCER

  • Every 57 minutes, one person dies of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer.
  • Four percent of all cancers in women are melanomas.
  • Melanoma is the most common cancer among adults ages 25 to 29.
  • One in five people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
  • Around 32,000 women will be diagnosed with melanoma this year.

Biggest Risk Factors
Ultraviolet (UV) rays from sun exposure can damage skin cells, which can predispose them to become cancerous later in life, says Abrar Qureshi, M.D., chair of dermatology at Brown University, who led a study showing that getting five or more blistering burns by age 20 raises your melanoma risk by 80 percent. Tanning booths are particularly dangerous because they deliver a hefty dose of UV radiation in a short period of time. Research shows a 20 percent higher melanoma risk in those who use them (compared with people who've never fake-baked)—and double the risk for those who start before age 35.

Your Anti-C Strategy
You can't completely undo skin damage done in your teens, but curbing your current sun exposure can help ward off melanoma, as well as basal and squamous cell skin cancers—two types that are less deadly but more common.

Wear a Wide-Brimmed Hat And Protective Clothing. Thick, tightly woven, synthetic materials offer the most protection, as do clothes labeled UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor.

Slather on a Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen. Use one with an SPF of at least 30, regardless of the weather—the sun's rays can penetrate through clouds and even glass! And ignore "waterproof" labels; there's no such thing, says Qureshi. Instead, apply a shot glass–size amount to your body, and reapply every two hours (more often if you've been in the water or sweating up a storm). Be especially vigilant about your arms and legs, where melanomas are most frequently found in women.

See a Dermatologist About Suspicious Moles. The most concerning are those that morph in color, size, or texture, says Qureshi.

 

COLON CANCER

  • Five-year survival rates have risen to 65 percent (compared with 49 percent nearly four decades ago).
  • Around 64,000 women are diagnosed every year; about 25,000 die of the disease.
  • Third most common cancer among women.

Biggest Risk Factors
Know your family history. Your risk doubles if a sibling or a parent was diagnosed before age 55. That's because roughly one in four cases appears to run in families. And lay off the vices! Women who toss back two or three alcoholic drinks a day are eight percent more at risk than once-a-day drinkers or teetotalers; other studies have found smoking can up your risk of colon cancer by as much as 50 percent.

Your Anti-C Strategy
Screening and treatment advances have sent survival rates soaring, in part because more worrisome polyps are being removed before they become cancerous. Still, unless you have a strong family history, colonoscopies aren't suggested until age 50. So what can you do now?

Listen to Your Gut. Persistent cramps, gas, and abdominal pain are common red flags (as are loose or bloody stools and chronic constipation).

Stay Slim and Active. This suppresses higher blood sugar levels that can spur cancers, says Colditz.

Limit Red, and Processed, Meat. Studies have linked these foods to an increased risk; experts recommend eating no more than three servings (two to three ounces) of red meat, sausages, lunch meats, and bacon per week.

 

CERVICAL AND OVARIAN CANCERS

  • Around 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually; about 4,000 die from the disease.
  • Around 20,000 are diagnosed annually with ovarian cancer, the most deadly reproductive cancer in women; about 15,000 die from the disease every year.
  • ​11 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in women under age 45.
  • ​91 percent: five-year survival rate for cervical cancer, if it's caught early and localized; nearly half of cases are ID'd at this stage.

Biggest Risk Factors
Sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) can trigger cervical cancer, with at least a dozen strains linked to the disease. And the ovarian cancer risk is much higher in women who carry a BRCA mutation.

Your Anti-C Strategy
Pap smears can identify precancerous cells on the cervix; experts now recommend getting this test every three years instead of annually. And if you're not 27 yet, the HPV vaccine is still an option. Other strategies:

Know the Signs. Notify your doc about prolonged abdominal bloating (a red flag for ovarian cancer) or suddenly heavy or irregular periods (a symptom of both cancers), says Karen Lu, M.D., chair of the department of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Check Your History. Women who have the BRCA mutation or a strong family history should consider getting their ovaries removed in their thirties or forties, after they're done having kids, says Lu.

Reconsider the Pill. It can reduce ovarian cancer risk but increase risk of cervical C. Talk to your doc about what's best based on your history.

 

Weighty Matters
As many as 20 percent of cancer deaths in women are linked to weight gain, and your risk rises with the number on the scale. "Extra pounds may amplify the body's estrogen levels in ways that promote runaway cell growth in hormone-related cancers," says Karen Lu, M.D., of MD Anderson Cancer Center. "In other cancers, such as colon, the theory is that weight-induced elevated blood sugars increase your risk."

If you have pounds to lose, though, don't rely on diet alone. Research shows that inactivity itself increases the risk for several cancers, likely due in part to elevated blood sugar levels. And hitting the gym may not be enough: "One sweat-filled hour won't erase the damage done by prolonged sitting. You need to get up every half-hour from lunch to day's end," says Graham Colditz, M.D., of the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis.