What Are the Most Common Cancers in Women?

breast exam, mammogram

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.