Monday 14 March, 2022

Let’s Talk Women’s Cancers

Dudi Warsito, PhD in Oncology, is a medical writer and researcher at cancer.se.

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This article is written in collaboration with cancer.se.

Every year, about 18 million people are diagnosed with cancer around the world. This figure is expected to increase to 22 million in 2034, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The researchers behind this report believe that the way forward in cancer care is to find ways to prevent the onset of cancer, instead of “just” focusing on treating cancer – a proactive, rather than reactive approach. Though cancer cannot be prevented in all its forms, the report highlights that adjusting lifestyles, such as eating a balanced diet, more physical activity and less alcohol, are important and relatively simple measures that prevent getting some forms of cancer. Another measure is to get more people to go for screening. Screening is essential for detecting disease or pre-stages of cancer at an early stage. The earlier a doctor detects cancer, the higher the chance of recovery.

Common cancers among women

Women make up almost half of all cancer cases. Breast cancer is by far the most common form of cancer among women, but cervical and ovarian cancer are also common.

Every year, 2.3 million women get breast cancer, while about 600,000 and 300,000 are diagnosed with cervical or ovarian cancer.

Thanks to constantly improving diagnostic tools and treatments, more and more women recover from cancer and go on to live cancer-free.

Screening saves lives

Detecting cancer and starting treatment at an early stage is a prerequisite for being able to recover. The earlier a doctor detects cancer, the greater chance of recovery and survival.

Signs that you have or are developing cancer vary depending on the type of cancer. A lump in the breast may be a sign of breast cancer while abdominal pain may indicate gynecological cancer such as ovarian cancer. In order to better be able to keep an eye out, it can be good to know, for example, how to examine your breasts.

A good and vital way to detect cancer is to go for screening when you are called. Several countries have their own national screening programs where the health service calls women in a certain age group for regular examinations, so-called screening. Each form of cancer has its own kind of screening. Let’s go through them together. 

Mammography

A mammography gives you information if you have or are at risk for breast cancer. During a mammography examination, your breasts are examined with the help of X-rays to see if there are any changes in the breast tissue. The screening is so effective that it can detect small changes without you even noticing them. Since 1989, 600,000 lives have been saved in the United States thanks to mammography and constantly improving treatments.

Gynecological cell testing

When screening for cervical cancer, a cell sample is taken from the cervix. The study is based on detecting human papillomavirus, HPV, and possible cell changes. HPV infections are very common but do not necessarily mean that you will develop cancer. If the infection is followed by cell changes, cancer can be suspected. Today there is a vaccine against HPV that can be given to both girls and boys.

No screening for ovarian cancer

There are no national screening programs for ovarian cancer in several countries, such as the USA, Sweden, the United Kingdom and other European countries. This is because there are currently not enough reliable screening methods that detect ovarian cancer at an early stage.

However, research is underway to develop tests for ovarian cancer. Two tests that have come the furthest are CA125 blood test and transvaginal ultrasound.

CA125 is a protein found in higher levels among women with ovarian cancer and has been used as a marker for the disease. However, it has been shown that the levels of CA125 can also increase due to other causes, and is therefore alone not a reliable marker for ovarian cancer. The test must be supplemented with another test.

In transvaginal ultrasound, a probe is placed in the vagina which gives a better picture compared to regular ultrasound where the probe is placed on the abdomen.

Overcome fear of getting screened

Interestingly, many women choose not to go for screening when they are called. There can be many reasons for this, but fear is a major factor (also known as scanxiety). This fear can stem from many things; previous negative experiences from healthcare, anxiety about the results of the screening or getting a cancer diagnosis, knowledge that you are at risk of becoming ill, or simply not knowing what screenings entail. 

It’s normal to be scared or anxious. In this situation, it’s important to remember that knowledge is power – knowing that you have cancer or are at risk allows you to do something about it. Instead of walking around and worrying, you can take matters into your own hands. In this way, you take control of the situation, gain clarity, and improve your mental health.

As already mentioned, early detection of cancer means a higher chance of recovery. If the screening does not show cancer but that you are in the risk zone, there are a lot of things the healthcare and you can do to reduce the risk of getting cancer. For example, it may be about having surgery to remove the breasts to prevent breast cancer or going for regular check-ups. Making lifestyle changes can also help prevent some cancers (not all!). For example: 

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Regular physical activity
  • Decreasing stress
  • Stop smoking or using tobacco
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Safe sex

If you are worried that you know too little about what screening means, reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider to learn more! They can tell you exactly what it is and how a screening is done. Or, open up in a conversation with a friend, colleague or family member who has experience of going to screenings and ask about them. By gaining knowledge, you also improve your possibilities of staying healthy and feeling safe when going to a screening.

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