How Can You Stay Cancer-Free?: A Checklist for Women 

by Team Onco
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March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day the world over. With increased focus on issues like equality at the workplace and women leadership, there is increased awareness about gender disparity.

Another aspect of this disparity is access to medical facilities and preventive care. Let’s take cervical cancer as an example. This type of cancer is largely preventable through vaccination of young girls. In spite of that, about 3,11,000 deaths occur due to cervical cancer every year.Most cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the advanced stages, making it more difficult to treat and cure. 

Did you know that Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in India followed by cervix cancer? Some of the other cancers that most often affect women are colorectal, endometrial, lung, oral and lip cancers and ovarian cancers.

An important aspect of cancer treatment is early diagnosis. If you can catch your cancer early, your treatment is likely to be shorter, with a much higher success rate and less expensive comparatively. 

This makes it important to know your body so that you can catch any early signs and symptoms. Not all cancers show symptoms in the early stages. But knowing what symptoms to look out for can help you. 

There are also certains preventive vaccines and cancer screening tests that can be taken from time to time to help you check for cancer. Screening tests help us catch cancer even before the symptoms have started to show. 

This International Women’s Day, we look at how women can ensure they stay cancer-free. Here’s a checklist for women of all ages. 

Girls aged 13 and upwards

Girls who are not yet sexually active can benefit from a HPV vaccine that prevents against  strains of HPV responsible for most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts.

cervical cancer vaccine

Women in their 20s

  • Examine your breasts for lumps every month. 
  • Check for changes in their size or shape.
  • Check for changes in colour on the skin on your breasts and armpit.
  • Check for any unusual discharge from the nipples, or changes in the shape of the nipples.
  • This is best done a few days after your monthly periods.
  • Once every three years, visit your doctor for a clinical breast examination.Doctors are better trained to identify any signs than you are, so it’s good to consult them once every three years.
  • From the age of 25, take the HPV test every 5 years. If the HPV test is not available, take a Pap test once every three years. HPV/Pap co-test can be taken every 5 years.This test checks for cervical cancer and can even catch it in the precancerous stage, making treatment very effective.

Women in their 30s

  • Examine your breasts for lumps every month.
  • Check for changes in their size or shape.
  • Check for changes in colour on the skin on your breasts and armpit.
  • Check for any unusual discharge from the nipples, or changes in the shape of the nipples.
  • This is best done a few days after your monthly periods.
  • Once every three years, visit your doctor for a clinical breast examination.
  • Take a Pap test and a DNA HPV test together, once in five years.

Alternatively, you can continue taking the pap test once in three years.

  • Speak to your doctor about your level of risk for breast cancer. This will help you select the right form of breast cancer screening like MRI, ultrasound breasts, mammograms etc. 
  • If you are a smoker or drink alcohol regularly, get a screening for oral cancer during your annual dentist appointment. The dentist will just look for any lesions or unusual signs inside your mouth and on your lip. (Tobacco is the most preventable cause of cancer. Speak to an anti-addiction counselor to help you quit this habit.)

cancer screening for women

Women in their 40s

  • Continue taking Pap test and DNA HPV test once every five years.
  • Speak to your doctor about taking an annual mammogram / MRI /clinical breast examination.
  • Speak to your doctor about the best type of colorectal cancer screening for you (there are three tests: gFOBT, FIT, stool DNA).
  • Continue to get screened for oral cancer during your annual dentist appointments. 

Women in their 50s

  • Visit your doctor for a clinical breast examination and a mammogram once every two years.
  • Continue with Pap test and DNA HPV test every five years, after consulting your doctor, based on your previous results.
  • If you are a smoker, or have been a smoker in the past (even 15 years back), with a usage of 30 packs per year, go for a low-dose CT scan to screen for lung cancer.
  • Continue with your colorectal screening upto the age of 75. 
  • Continue to get screened for oral cancer during your annual dentist appointments. 

Women in their  60s 

  • Ask your doctor if you need an annual MRI for breasts (depending on your risk level for breast cancer)
  • To follow your doctor’s advice for the need of continuation/stopping  of screening tests for cervix cancer.
  • Continue with your colorectal screening upto the age of 75. 

Women aged 70 and beyond

Speak to your doctor to find out if you still need to continue any cancer screening

cancer screening for older women

Other aspects to consider

Here are some additional aspects for women to consider:

  • If you have family members, particularly mothers or sisters, who were diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancer  before the age of 50, speak to your doctor about starting screening earlier than the usual recommendation.
  • If you have previously suffered from pelvic malignancies, speak to your doctor about the best screening schedule for you.
  • Based on the risk category and family history, you might be suggested to take up  genetic counselling and genetic testing.

 

 

What can a woman do to reduce her risk of breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in india. While it is not completely preventable, there are a few things you can do to stay safer:

  • Examine your breasts every month so that you will notice the smallest signs of cancer at the earliest possible stage. This will ensure that you can be treated easily, many times avoiding painful treatments like chemotherapy and radiation completely. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity increases your risk of many types of cancer, breast cancer included. Stick to a diet rich in fresh vegetables and nutrition. 
  • Maintain an active lifestyle. Set aside 30 mins for your daily physical activity, be it walking, exercising, sports, or dance. Everyday home chores do not count as exercise. 
  • After childbirth, breast feed for more than six months to reduce your risk of breast cancer to some extent. 
  • If you are on birth control pills, consult your doctor about the effects of their prolonged usage. 

You can read more about breast cancer screening and other screening tests here.

What can a woman do to reduce her risk of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in Indian women.

As mentioned before, being vaccinated against cervical cancer greatly reduces your risk of developing it. However, even vaccinated women need to continue to take pap tests as per schedule to keep a check on their cervical health. 

You can read more about screening for cervical cancer here

Here are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of cervical cancer:

  • Avoid early marriages as these increase your risk. 
  • Avoid having multiple sexual partners to reduce your risk of HPV virus and consequently cervical cancer. 
  • Having multiple children also increases your risk of cervical cancer. 
  • Maintain good genital hygiene always. 

In the words of poet Maya Angelou, “When a woman takes care of her health, she becomes her own best friend.” Protecting your health is your first responsibility towards yourself and your family. 

 

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