Understanding the risk factors associated with these five cancers is the first step to take in minimizing your personal risk.
A cancer diagnosis can often be directly linked to your family medical history, your lifestyle choices, and your environment. You can’t control your family medical history, and only some aspects of your environment are up to you. But lifestyle choices like diet, weight, activity level, and smoking are yours to manage.
“Preventive measures are so heavily underutilized by people. And yet they work. Everything in moderation really works,” says Richard R. Barakat, MD, chief of the gynecology service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
While the overall odds are that two out of three women will never get cancer, 700,000 women were diagnosed with cancer in 2008 (the most recent year for which CDC data is available), most with one of the following types:
- Breast cancer accounted for 26 percent of female cancer cases and 15 percent of the 272,000 female cancer deaths that year. A woman’s odds of getting this cancer: 1 in 8
- Lung and bronchus cancers accounted for 14 percent of female cancer cases and 26 percent of all deaths. A woman’s odds of getting this cancer: 1 in 16
- Colon and rectal cancers accounted for 10 percent of all cancer cases and 9 percent of all deaths. A woman’s odds of getting this cancer: 1 in 19
- Uterine cancer accounted for 6 percent of all cancer cases, and 3 percent of all deaths. A woman’s odds of getting this cancer: 1 in 41
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounted for 4 percent of all cancer cases and 3 percent of all deaths. A woman’s odds of getting this cancer: 1 in 53
As you learn about the common risk factors for each of these cancers, you can take steps to correct the ones within your control.
Breast Cancer Risks
Risk factors for breast cancer, the most common cancer among women, include:
- Age: Two 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 it.
- Race: White women are more susceptible than African-Americans, although African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer, partly because their tumors may grow faster.
- Dense breast tissue
- Previous radiation treatment to the chest
- A greater than average number of menstrual periods (starting before age 12, reaching menopause after age 55)
- No pregnancies, or having your first pregnancy after the age of 30
- Taking birth control pills: The level of risk goes back to normal 10 years after stopping the pill.
- Past treatment with the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), once used to prevent miscarriage
- Post-menopausal hormone therapy: Avoiding this treatment decreases your risk of breast cancer.
- Not breastfeeding
- Being overweight and having a high-fat diet
- Lack of exercise
- Drinking heavily: University of Oxford researchers who studied 1.3 million women over a seven-year period found that moderate drinking — as few as one to three drinks per week — puts you at higher risk for breast cancer.
Lung and Bronchus Cancer Risks
A look at the percentages of deaths among people diagnosed with this form of cancer shows just how deadly lung cancer is, at close to the reverse of breast cancer statistics. 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 10 to 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers. Family history also plays a part. Other risk factors include exposure to:
- Second-hand smoke
- Radon gas
Besides following an exercise plan and a healthy diet, limiting your alcohol intake can also help keep lung cancer at bay.
Colon and Rectum Cancer Risks
More than 90 percent of colon cancers occur in those 50 and older. Risk factors include:
- A personal or family history of colorectal cancer, polyps, or inflammatory bowel disease
- Heavy drinking
- Low-fiber, high-fat diet that includes lots of processed meat and few fruits and vegetables
Early detection is a lifesaver, especially when it comes to colon and rectum cancers. It usually takes 10 to 15 years for abnormal cells to grow in the colon, which means if you have regular colonoscopy screenings to look for polyps and remove them before they become abnormal, you can stay on top of this deadly disease.
A new study from the National Institutes of Health also found a promising connection between calcium and dairy food intake and a lower risk of colon cancer. This study, which tracked 200,000 men and 200,000 women over a seven-year period, is significant because it used a larger population sample to support smaller studies with the same findings.
Uterine Cancer Risks
Hormonal changes, particularly related to estrogen, play a significant role in yourrisk for uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer. Risk factors include:
- A greater than average number of menstrual periods
- No pregnancies
- Taking estrogen therapy
- Obesity and having a high-fat diet
- Past or present use of tamoxifen for breast cancer
- Some kinds of ovarian tumors
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- A family history of colon cancer
- A personal history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Some cases of endometrial hyperplasia, a thickening of the uterine lining
Using birth control pills over a period of time, but ultimately having multiple pregnancies, can help decrease your risk.
Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma Risks
This disease, which can show up in your lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils and adenoids, thymus gland, or bone marrow, attacks the body’s lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Risk factors include:
- A weakened immune system, especially if related to long-term infection or organ transplant
- Age: Most cases occur in people 60 or older
- Exposure to certain chemicals, especially insecticides and herbicides
- Autoimmune diseases
There are no known prevention methods for Non-Hodgkins lymphoma , other than to avoid diseases that cause immune deficiency; the most preventable of these diseases is HIV.
Making all the lifestyle improvements you can, most of which involve simple changes to your diet and exercise habits, will go a long way toward improving your health and helping to reduce your risk of cancers common to women.