Womens Cancers - by Dr David Delvin

The word ‘cancer’ is one that makes a lot of people shiver with fear. But it’s best to know the facts about ‘the Big C’ – because of the simple fact that so many of us may get it!

And the majority of cancers occur in the retirement age group. That’s why it’s so important for people in this group to be well informed. By being properly informed, you give yourself the best chance of AVOIDING cancer – or, if you get it, of DEFEATING it.

In this article I’m going to deal with WOMEN’S cancers. And in a subsequent piece, I’ll be dealing with cancer which mainly effect MEN.

But today is for women. So ladies: do please read on! This feature could save your life. Remember: EARLY treatment will usually produce CURE or at least control !

In this article, I’m going to be dealing with the really common cancers which affect the ‘female’ parts of the body.

These are:

The Breast   The Ovary  The Womb  The Cervix

However, there are cancers which commonly affect BOTH sexes – things like lung cancer and bowel cancer. I’ll explain about them at the end of this feature.

But now … on to the cancers which either only or mainly affect women.

BREAST CANCER

Cancer of the breast is terribly common. Unless you’ve been living on a desert island, you must know someone who has had it.

There were over 40,000 cases in Britain last year. Indeed, latest statistics show that a staggering one in NINE British women will get it at some stage of their lives.

What’s important to grasp is that the peak age group for breast cancer is the RETIREMENT age group. A lot of people have the idea that breast cancer is commonest in young women, but that’s simply not true. At the time of writing, the very highest rates occur between 50 and 64.

SYMPTOMS The most common symptom is simply a LUMP in the breast. But other possible symptoms are:

  • Bleeding from the nipple
  • Brown discharge from the nipple
  • Recent ‘in turning’ of the nipple
  • Puckering of the skin of the breast

How can you protect yourself against breast cancer? Well, it’s vital to ‘keep an eye’ on your breasts throughout your life. If you ever think that there’s something wrong, please see a doctor rapidly -- and have that breast checked.

Until quite recent years, it was official advice that every woman should use her hands to check her own breasts MONTHLY for lumps and other abnormalities. Then one day, the Department of Health suddenly decided that this wasn’t necessary. Instead, they suggested that women should simply be ‘breast aware'.

This came as quite a shock to the breast cancer charities, who for years had been advising women to examine their breasts each month. And it’s noteworthy that the Americans have continued to advise ‘do-it-yourself’ monthly checks of the breast.

Personally, I would suggest that there’s a great deal to be said for checking your own breasts about once a month. If you think you feel a lump – or any other abnormality -- you should have it examined by your GP within a couple of days. And if she believes there’s anything wrong, she will arrange an urgent referral to your local Breast Unit.

SCREENING:   What about screening (mammography)?

Well, this is an x-ray examination of the breast, and it has been shown that carrying it out in women aged over 49 WILL reduce the death rate from breast carcinoma.

So, in 1988 regular three-yearly screening was introduced for women aged 50 to 64. It was decided that ladies OVER the age 64 could have regular screening too – IF they asked for it.

This wasn’t really very satisfactory, because the fact is that many breast cancers develop long after age 64.

So in 2001, it was decided that regular mammograms would now be offered to everyone in the 50 to 70 age group – and that over-70s could have it if they wanted it.

Frankly, my advice to you is that from age 50 onwards, you should DEFINITELY have the three-yearly screening – and continue with it for the rest of your life. Remember: as with all these cancers, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better the chance of cure. Thank heavens, breast cancer death rates are falling.   (Please note, it is not unusual for MEN to also suffer from breast cancer, so gentlemen, please also be 'breast aware')

OVARIAN CANCER 

Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is quite common – far commoner than the much better-known cervical cancer. There are about 7,000 cases a year in the UK at the moment. Roughly one woman in every 48 gets ovary cancer.

It’s important to appreciate that this is mainly a disease of post-menopausal women. So anyone who is in the ‘retirement age group’ is to some extent at risk. The highest incidence of all is in people aged 70 to 75.

Regrettably, the symptoms of cancer of the ovaries are usually pretty vague, making it difficult to diagnose. But common ones are:

  • Pain in the lowest part of your abdomen;
  • Bloating in the same area;
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding;
  • Constipation;
  • Persistent urinary problems.

If you get symptoms like those, you should go to your doctor and ask for a gynaecological check-up.

SCREENING:  What about screening? Unfortunately, in the case of ovarian cancer this is difficult. At the moment, there is NO formal ‘ovary screening’ service in this country.

Some women who can afford it have regular private ultrasound screening of their ovaries

There is also a test which measures the levels of a chemical called CA125 in the woman’s blood. (CA 125 is produced by most ovarian tumours) However, the results are very difficult to assess, and at present doctors are NOT recommending that all post-menopausal woman should have this test.

CANCER OF THE WOMB (ENDOMETRIAL CANCER) 

A lot of people confuse womb cancer with cancer of the cervix, but in reality they’re two different diseases.

Womb cancer actually occurs in the LINING of the womb – which is the tissue which is shed during periods. The womb lining is called the ‘endometrium’ – which is why this is often known as ‘endometrial cancer.’ 

Despite all the publicity about it, cervical cancer is actually much less common than the other three ‘female cancers.’

It only occurs in women who have had sex. It’s commoner in smokers, and in women whose partners are manual workers. It is also commoner in the North of England than the South.

There were only 2,800 cases in the UK last year. The great majority of these women survived, and in fact deaths from cervix cancer are now down to about 1,000 a year.

SCREENING:  The reason for this is Britain’s excellent cervical screening programme. As I’m sure you’re aware, every woman who has ever had intercourse should have regular cervical smears throughout her life. (Don’t stop just because you’re 50 or 60!)

The INTERVAL between smear tests varies a bit in different parts of the country, and is to some extent dependent on your past gynae history. But most women need a smear every three to five years.

IMMUNISATION:  In March 2006, it was announced that a vaccine against cervical cancer ‘could be available within 12 months.’ However, this immunization will only give protection against certain types of cervix cancer. My guess is that its main value will be in teenagers. At the moment, I can’t see that it will really be much use to women in the retirement age group – who should continue to rely on the protection given by smear testing.

SYMPTOMS:   What about symptoms? Well, if you have regular screening tests, you’ll probably never get any symptoms – because the condition will be ‘picked up’ so early.

However, the classic symptoms of cancer of the cervix include:

  • Bleeding from the vagina after the menopause;
  • Bleeding between periods;
  • Bleeding after sex.

(But all these symptoms can also have less serious causes.)

NON ‘FEMALE’ CANCERS

Now what about cancers which affect women – but which AREN’T specifically female?

The really common ones are:

  • Lung cancer;
  • Bowel cancer.

I will be dealing with these conditions in another article, but for the moment, here are a few useful tips:

  • Lung cancer is rare in non-smokers, although there are occasional tragic exceptions.
  • Symptoms of lung cancer are often very vague, but the commonest is a cough that just won’t clear up;
  • Bowel cancer is just about as common as lung cancer in women;
  • It is commonest in the retirement age group;
  • Possible symptoms include bleeding from the back passage, black motions, tummy pain, weight loss, and unexplained change in bowel habits.
© 2000 Dr D Delvin / Retirement Matters Ltd. All rights reserved.