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Seeing off the big C

20th September 2013

With survival rates for common female cancers better than ever these days, there’s still plenty we can do to help protect our health. Wendy Golledge has some expert tips.

Cervical cancer

The number of cases has virtually halved since the 90s and, thanks to national screening programmes, death rates have fallen by almost two-thirds in the past 30 years.

Who’s at risk

More than half of diagnoses are in the under-50s. Doctors now know that it’s caused in part by the human papilloma virus (HPV). “The virus is so common that almost everyone who’s had sex has been exposed,” explains Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist Adeola Olaitan. “The important thing to remember is most women who get HPV will not get cervical cancer, as their immune system fights off the virus.”

Protect yourself

“If you smoke, make an effort to give up, as it weakens your immune system and significantly increases your risk of HPV developing into cervical cancer,” says Olaitan. Research has also found the risk doubles if taking the pill for five years or more.

Red flag symptoms

“The key thing to look out for is abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause,” says Olaitan. “Some women also notice smelly discharge or pain during sex. All sorts of other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it’s worth getting them checked as, caught early, cervical cancer is very treatable.”

Take action

“Never ignore your invitation for a smear test,” says Olaitan. “It detects early changes to your cervix, so you can be treated to prevent cancer developing. Smears are painless and nothing to be scared of. It only takes a few minutes and it could save your life.”

Cervical screening begins at 25 and continues until 64, plus there’s now an HPV vaccination programme for girls aged 12 and 13. “The vaccine can help prevent two strains of HPV infection, but not if you’ve already been exposed – hence why it’s given to girls before they’re sexually active,” says Olaitan.

Ovarian cancer

Treatment has improved significantly over the past 20 years. A third of women with the disease will now live for ten years or more and, if it’s caught early, 90 percent of women survive. More than three-quarters of women are unaware that ovarian cancer even has symptoms, however, which can lead to a late diagnosis.

Who’s at risk?

“Ovarian cancer tends to be a disease of older women – and the majority of cases will occur after the menopause,” says Professor Hani Gabra, Director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre. Other risk factors are a strong family history of either ovarian cancer or breast cancer.

Protect yourself

“Anything that reduces the amount you ovulate during your lifetime will lower your risk,” says Gabra. “So having children and breastfeeding both help, as does the pill. Some research suggests taking an oral contraceptive for five years reduces your risk by up to 50 percent.” A 2006 study suggested that taking anti-inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin can lower the risk, although experts agree more research is needed.

Red flag symptoms

For years, ovarian cancer was known as the silent killer.“We now know the majority of women with ovarian cancer will have some of the following,” says Gabra. “Look out for a sense of bloating in your abdomen, going off your food, difficulty eating or feeling full very quickly and persistent pain in your pelvis, abdomen and stomach area. Anything that occurs most days and lasts more than a couple of weeks needs checking out.”

Take action

There is no NHS screening programme, but blood tests, plus ultrasound screening, are being trialled for the over-50s. “The results won’t be published until 2014,” says Gabra. “Until then it’s vital all women are aware of the symptoms and don’t hesitate to see their GP if they’re worried.”

Breast cancer

The most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK, it affects one in eight women during their lifetime, but the news isn’t all bad. More women than ever (over 80 percent) now survive more than five years and almost three-quarters beat breast cancer for ten years or more.

Who’s at risk?

Risk increases with age and, while seen in younger women, it’s more common in the over-50s. “Although the causes aren’t completely understood, having a first-degree relative who’s suffered from breast cancer can put you at a greater risk, as well as late first pregnancy or menopause, and taking combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for a long time,” says Jaroslaw Krupa, Consultant Breast Surgeon at University Hospitals of Leicester and Nuffield Health Leicester Hospital.

Protect yourself

“Maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking and only drinking in moderation may help,” says Krupa. “We also know that exercising for four or more hours a week reduces your risk by 50 percent.” Lastly, examine your breasts regularly, so you know how they normally look and feel, making it easier to spot unusual changes.

Red flag symptoms

“Report any changes in the size, shape or feel of your breasts to your GP straight away,” says Krupa. Look out for any lumps or thickenings in one breast or armpit, puckering or redness of the skin, a rash, nipple inversion or discharge, as well as persistent pain in only one breast.

Take action

“If you do nothing else, make sure you attend mammograms when you’re offered them,” says Krupa. “They’re a very efficient way of detecting breast cancer early in women with no other symptoms.” Women aged 50 to 70 are invited for screening, with plans to include ages 47 to 73.

Note: Original source - benhealth issue 17.