A cancer diagnosis description :
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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