Yesterday was the start of Women’s Health Week, which makes it a great time to talk about the opportunities for preventing cancers unique to women. Many women may know they can reduce their risk of breast cancer – see below – but there are steps women can take to prevent other cancers as well.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death in US women. The good news is that cervical cancer rates underwent an enormous decline between the 1950s and the 1990s thanks to the Pap smear – one of the highlights of our efforts to identify cancers early when they are most treatable (i.e., cancer screening). Cervical cancer screening via Pap smear allows doctors to identify early changes in the cells lining the cervix before they turn into cancers. The cells can be removed and cancer prevented! This is why cervical cancer screening is a key cancer prevention strategy. But we can also prevent those changes from occurring in most women, and pretty simply!
It turns out most cervical cancers are caused by an infection. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Avoiding HPV infection will prevent virtually all cervical cancers. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection. However, HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area so avoiding sexual intercourse is not a 100 percent guarantee against infection. And that’s the reason we are fortunate to have another approach to preventing infection – the HPV vaccine.
Vaccines are available for the four most common subtypes of HPV, two of which are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers. The current American Cancer Society recommendation is to vaccinate girls at ages 11-12 (and as early as age 9 at the doctor’s discretion).
Endometrial cancer is a cancer of the lining of the uterus. Endometrial cancer is closely linked to female hormones, like estrogen. What you may not know is that, while ovaries produce most of a woman’s estrogen, fat tissue is also a source of estrogen. So, on average, women with more fat tissue have more estrogen and, thus, a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer. In fact the risk is double for an overweight woman and more than triple in an obese woman.
One of the best ways to prevent endometrial cancer is to avoid being overweight. Other factors associated with endometrial cancer risk include physical activity and diabetes. While physical activity decreases risk of obesity, it also has a protective effect on endometrial cancer independent of obesity. Similarly, while being overweight substantially increases your risk of diabetes, even people who have diabetes but are not overweight have an increased risk of endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer risk is also elevated in women with Lynch syndrome.
Ovarian Cancer: Unfortunately, there are fewer lifestyle changes you can make to lower your ovarian cancer risk. Use of birth control pills for at least five years reduces ovarian cancer risk. Women who have more than two children and who breast feed for at least one year also have a lower risk. Family history is also an important risk factor for ovarian cancer, but one that is obviously not modifiable.
To learn how to reduce your risk of breast cancer, visit here.
Dr. Kate Wolin is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine and Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. She blogs about practical approaches to prevention, wellness and disease management at drkatewolin.com and on Twitter @drkatewolin.