Understanding the risk factors for cancer can help you make decisions about prevention and screening for early signs of cancer. Here is a look at the five most common cancers in women*, as well as steps you can take to help find these diseases early if needed.
1. Breast cancer
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.
Some women should also be screened with MRI along with mammograms. 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 for you to have a conversation with your doctor about your risk of breast cancer, as well as risks and benefits of screening.
2. Lung cancer
The number one risk factor for lung cancer is smoking. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about how you can quit; it is never too late. 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 persons between the ages of 50 to 80 who are current smokers or have quit in the last 15 years, and who have smoked at least 20 pack-years (meaning one pack daily for 20 years or two packs daily for 10 years). Screenings consist of a low-dose CT scan.
Although smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, anyone can get the disease. Symptoms include:
- Trouble breathing
- A lingering cough
- Chest discomfort
- 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
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among all 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)
- 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 Cancer Institute also has one of the only Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer centers in the world. Dana-Farber experts recommend the following screening guidelines:
- Ages 18-39: Screening is not routinely recommended 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 40-44: 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 45+: Everyone should be screened regularly. 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 exist across several generations, you may want to speak with your doctor about genetic counseling and testing.
4. Uterine/endometrial cancer
Women who are age 55 and older are most at risk for uterine/endometrial cancer. Risk factors for the disease can include:
- Taking estrogen without progesterone
- Taking tamoxifen for breast cancer
- Diabetes mellitus
- Having a family history of cancers or Lynch syndrome
To help catch this cancer early, it’s important to look for signs and symptoms, which can include:
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstruation
- Difficult or painful urination
- Pelvic pain
- 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
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
- 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
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.
For more information, check out this video on the signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer.
*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.