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Women + Cancer

Publication: D Magazine


When people think of “women and cancer,” inevitably, breast cancer comes to mind. And for good reason, as it remains the most common type of cancer in women. However, skin cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer follow closely behind in statistics and often have a later-stage diagnosis because the symptoms are less noticeable and there is less emphasis on screening. Some cancers, such as ovarian cancer, have no definitive screening available—another reason for a late-stage diagnosis.

Anju Nair, M.D., a board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist with Texas Oncology, says breast cancer is often top of mind for women because it receives more  media attention. She finds that many of her female patients with other types of cancer are often surprised by their diagnosis, either because they don’t have a family history of it, or they haven’t heard as much about it. Therefore, they weren’t as vigilant about getting screened or asking their doctors about their unusual symptoms. 

“We have the benefit of screening for some cancers, particularly those that affect women, such as cervical cancer and breast cancer,” Dr. Nair says. “The benefit of staying on top of cancer screening is that if there is an early finding, not only can we diagnose it early, but we can also treat it early. For instance, colon cancer may start off as a benign polyp or growth that isn’t malignant yet. With a colonoscopy, you can catch it long before it becomes malignant. Often, a finding of pre-cancer can trigger a response from a primary doctor who will then recommend genetic testing or other cancer screens that can also be beneficial.”

The American Cancer Society recommends the following cancer screening guidelines for women:

Breast Cancer

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start yearly breast cancer screening with a mammogram (X-ray of the breast) if they wish to do so.
  • Women ages 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year.
  • Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every two years or can continue yearly screening.
  • Women at high risk for breast cancer—because of their family history, a genetic mutation, or other risk factors—should be screened with MRI along with a mammogram.

Colorectal Cancer

  • Start regular screening at age 45. 
  • Have a colonoscopy every 10 years, or a CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every five years, or a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.
  • Those with high risk of colorectal cancer based on family and/or personal history or other factors may need to start screening before age 45, be screened more often, or get specific tests.

Lung Cancer

  • If you smoke now—or did smoke—and are between age 50 and 80 and in fairly good health, you may benefit from screening for lung cancer with a yearly low-dose CT scan.

Cervical Cancer

  • Start screenings (Pap) at age 25.
  • Women between age 25 and 65 should get a primary HPV test every five years or get a co-test (an HPV test with a Pap test) every five years or a Pap test every three years.
  • Women over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing in the past 10 years with normal (or negative) results should not be tested for cervical cancer. Those with a history of serious cervical precancer should continue to be tested for at least 25 years after that diagnosis, even if the testing goes past age 65.

Skin Cancer

  • Be aware of all moles and spots on your skin and report any changes to a healthcare provider right away. Ask about having a skin exam done during your regular health check-ups.

Ovarian Cancer

  • At this time, there are no recommended cancer screening tests for ovarian cancer for women who are not at high risk of developing the disease. See a healthcare provider right away if you have concerning symptoms that last for more than a few weeks that could indicate ovarian cancer.

Dr. Nair says early detection of all types of cancer is a matter of relaying your concerning symptoms to your primary doctor and following up closely. Seeking cancer treatment at a comprehensive cancer center, such as Texas Oncology, means you will have access to different types of doctors who can treat the cancer with a multidisciplinary approach, from nutrition and emotional support to the latest, most innovative treatment modalities.

“The likelihood of successful treatment is so much better now—the key is when the cancer is picked up,” Dr. Nair says. “If it’s picked up in a timely manner, there could even be a possibility of cure. That wasn’t always the case. We are starting to see more and more women survive breast cancer, as well as other types of cancer. Their prognosis is improving, and their quality of life during treatment is improving as well. The goal is to finish up the course of treatment so they can move forward with their lives.” 

Dr. Nair adds that clinical trials and new treatments, such as immunotherapy, are proving to be effective for many types of cancer. “Immunotherapy is a possible alternative to chemotherapy for many types of cancer,” she says. “Immunotherapy helps someone’s own immune system to kill cancer. We are able to study each person’s cancers in greater detail in order to provide more individualized treatment. If the tumor happens to have a particular protein or genetic mutation, we have the option of using newer drugs that target these findings. Such targeted therapies offer better outcomes with better tolerated side effects.”