As we age, cancer risk increases – no matter who you are. That doesn’t mean everyone has the same risk factors, or the same degree of risk, though, and it’s important to be aware of your particular risk profile. For women, that means understanding what specific steps to take above and beyond standard cancer screenings like pap smears and mammograms. 

Most Common Cancers

Most women know, if only based on community statistics, that the most common cancer among women is breast cancer, making up as many as 30% of all cancer cases among women. However, the next most common cancer diagnosed in women is actually lung and bronchus cancer, representing about 12%, followed by colon and rectal cancer. There are any number of reasons these other cancers don’t get as much attention at breast cancer, but given how common they are, it can’t be stressed enough how important it is for women to avoid smoking and to get regularly scheduled colonoscopies.

In addition to the many different types of cancer, there are also many subtypes of each cancer, and these often have different risk and symptom profiles. For example, inflammatory breast cancer tends to be more aggressive and presents as skin irregularities, compared to the more common invasive breast cancers. Similarly, in uterine cancer patients may have endometrial cancer, which is the most common, but there are also much rarer and often more dangerous uterine sarcomas. 

Know Your Screeners

Just as there are many different types of cancer, there are also many different screening tests for cancer, and it’s important to get all appropriate tests as recommended by your doctor. For young women, including sexually active teenagers, this includes regular pap smears, while mammograms are generally recommended every two years for women ages 50 and over who are at otherwise average risk for breast cancer. Colorectal cancer screenings also typically begin around age 50, while lung cancer screenings are only standard for smokers or those with a recent history of smoking.

Preventative Practices

There are many different steps women can take to protect against cancer, but how significant any behavioral change is will depend on other factors as well. For example, never smoking or even quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to prevent lung cancer. In a completely different vein, women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations may choose to undergo a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer before it can develop, since they are at a much higher risk.

Other common preventative steps that women can take, and which will reduce the risk of many cancers, include eating a healthy diet and exercising, minimizing alcohol consumption, and managing their weight, as being overweight or obese can increase the risk of cancer. Additionally, women with certain cancer-causing syndromes, such as Lynch and Cowden’s Syndromes, or who have a strong family history of certain cancers should talk to their doctors about other preventative measures.

There is not a perfect lifestyle or set of behaviors that can completely prevent cancer – some non-smokers get lung cancer, just as some people who eat a perfectly healthy diet and get regularly preventative care develop colon cancer. That’s because cancer is caused by many different intersecting factors, not just lifestyle choices, but also genetics, our environment, and simple chance. Luckily, cancer treatment and detection continue to improve, and survival rates continue to increase for many kinds of cancer. 

Taken together with education and preventative measures, outcomes have never been better for cancer patients.