Cancers Affecting Women: Risk Factors, Signs and Symptoms

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Historically, cancer affects women less frequently than men. The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer during her lifetime, while one in two men will receive the diagnosis. Women also tend to survive the disease more often than men.

Studies have found that these differences in incidence and outcome may be attributed to the fact that men are diagnosed with cancer more often in the first place, and to the fact that many of the lifestyle-related risk factors for cancer, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and eating fatty foods, have traditionally been more prevalent among men.

Whatever the cause, differences exist when it comes to men and women and cancer, and they often start with anatomy.


Female cancers


Some cancers only affect women because they develop in a woman’s reproductive system, which includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, vagina, and vulva.


Type of CancerRisk FactorsSigns and Symptoms
Thyroid cancer• Age • Family history • Exposure to radiation or x-rays, especially at young ages • Diet lacking iodine • Workplace exposure to certain substances.• Lump at the front of the neck • Swollen lymph nodes • Difficulty swallowing, speaking, or breathing • Throat or neck pain.
Brain tumors• Age • Family history.• Severe headaches • Nausea • Problems with speech, vision, or hearing • Loss of balance • Changes in mood or personality • Memory loss • Seizures • Numbness in extremities.
Breast cancer• Age • Family history • High breast tissue density • Hyperplasia (an increase in number of cells in the breast; detected by a biopsy) • X-ray exposure, particularly at young ages or high doses • Early onset of menstruation and/or late menopause • Never having children • Having first child after age 30 • Use of birth control pills (within 10 years of stopping use, risk returns to normal) • Overweight or obesity after menopause • Use of menopausal hormone therapy containing both estrogen and progestin • Excessive alcohol consumption • Inherited mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.• Abnormalities (may be detected by a mammogram) • A lump in the breast (may be detected by a mammogram) • Changes in the breast (See page 160 of the Reproductive Health chapter for more information.)
Cervical cancer• Human papillomavirus (HPV); a vaccine can now prevent infection with strains of the virus responsible for most cervical cancers; condoms also offer partial protection.• Abnormal cells (can be detected by Pap test) • Abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Colon and rectal cancers• Age • Family history • History of inflammatory bowel disease • Obesity • Smoking • Excessive alcohol consumption • Inherited genetic mutations.• Polyps or tumors (can be detected by screening tests) • Blood in stool (may be detected by screening tests) • Changes in bowel habits • Pain or cramping.
Skin cancer (melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell cancers)• Personal or family history of skin cancer • Many moles or large moles • Sun-burning easily • Natural blonde or red hair • Personal history of major sunburns and use of tanning booths • Workplace exposure to certain substances.• Changes in the skin, such as a new growth, change in an existing growth, or sores that do not heal.
Pancreatic cancer• Smoking • Chronic pancreatitis (PAN-kree-uh-TYT-uhss) • Diabetes • Cirrhosis • Obesity.• Weight loss • Abdominal discomfort • Jaundice.
Ovarian cancer• Age • Use of estrogen-only menopausal hormone therapy • Overweight and obesity • Personal or family history of breast cancer • Mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes • Personal or family history of hereditary nonpolypsis colon cancer (HNPCC).• Bloating • Pelvic or abdominal pain • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly • Digestive problems • Urinary problems (urgency or frequency) • Fatigue • Back pain • Abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers• Tobacco use (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco products) • Excessive alcohol consumption.• Sores that bleed and/or do not heal • Lumps or thickening • Ear pain • A mass on the neck • Cough that produces blood • Red or white patch that does not go away • Difficulties chewing or swallowing.
Myeloma (cancer of plasma cells in the blood)• Age • History of a condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).• Pain in or broken bones of the back and spine • Fatigue • Thirst • Repeated infections or fevers.
Lymphoma (Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas) • Reduced immune function due to autoimmune (aw-toh-ih-MYOON) disorders • Infection with HIV, retrovirus human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus-1 (HTLV-1), or hepatitis C • Family history • Workplace exposures to herbicides and other chemicals • Medications that reduce immune function for an organ transplant.• Swollen lymph nodes • Night sweats • Fatigue • Weight loss • Fever.
Lung cancer• Smoking • Exposure to airborne carcinogens such as asbestos, radon, secondhand smoke, some chemicals and metals, and air pollution.• Cough that does not go away • Cough that produces blood • Chest pain • Repeated pneumonia (noo-MOH-nyuh) or bronchitis.
Liver cancer• Age • Family history
• Hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection • Cirrhosis (sur-ROH-suhss) • Exposure to athe toxic substance, aflatoxin, in-mold that grows in nuts, seeds, and legumes.• Abdominal pain on the right side • Abdominal swelling • Weight loss • Loss of appetite • Fatigue • Nausea • Jaundice • Fever.
Leukemia• Exposure to benzene or ionizing radiation • Cancer radiation treatment • Down syndrome and some other genetic abnormalities • Retrovirus human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus-1 (HTLV-1).• Fatigue • Paleness • Weight loss • Repeated infections • Fever • Easy bruising • Nosebleeds
Endometrial cancer• Use of estrogen-only menopausal therapy (in women with an intact uterus) • Early onset of menstruation and/or late menopause • Never having children • Obesity.• Abnormal uterine bleeding, especially after menopause.

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