Woman patient

This week is National Women’s Health Week, a week intended to make sure that all women and girls take control of their health and begin to lead a healthier life at any age. This week is primarily about education and letting women know how to prevent the diseases most likely to affect them. Although it can be intimidating to consider life changing diseases, the best time to be informed is prior to having an issue or diagnosis. And, as it turns out with many issues in women’s health, taking small steps now to assist in the prevention of disease can drastically reduce your likelihood of developing issues later on.

With the intention of taking control of your health, what types of diseases should you, as a woman, or as someone who loves or cares for a woman, be most concerned about? Cancer and heart disease are consistently ranked as top causes of death for women. Many of the risk factors of heart disease can be eased by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating right. But, for many people, cancer feels much scarier. How do you prevent that?

Some rare diseases are perceived only as a risk for men, but can actually affect women too. For example, mesothelioma is a cancer that has been thought of as a man’s disease, but, recently, the patient profile has been changing to include more women who experienced second-hand exposure from fathers, husbands, and other loved ones who worked in industries where asbestos exposure was a risk. For any women or loved one in your life who may have been exposed to asbestos, encourage them to visit their doctor to discuss their risks.

There are three cancers that cause the largest percent of deaths in women; breast cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer. These three account for fifty percent of cancer deaths. So let’s unpack these a little and learn what you can do to prevent them.

Breast Cancer

Your odds: 1 in 8

Risk factors: Your risk factors for breast cancer include family history and age. If you are over 55 your breast cancer diagnosis is more likely to be invasive, and if your mother, sister or daughter has it, your risk is doubled. Lack of exercise and a high-fat diet are contributing factors to a breast cancer diagnosis, as is drinking heavily and a lack of exercise. Taking birth control pills increases your risk factor, as does not having a pregnancy or having your first pregnancy after thirty.

Screening: Regular breast self-exams are the first step in monitoring any lumps or changes in size or shape in the breast or armpit. Doctors and nurses can offer clinical breast exams, but by the age of forty you should be talking to your doctor about how often you should be scheduling mammograms. After fifty you should have a mammogram every two years. Being aware of your body and making sure to address changes or lumps in your breast with your primary care physician is imperative to catching this cancer early and increasing your chances of survival.

Lung and Bronchus Cancer

Your odds: 1 in 16

Risk factors: 80% of lung cancers in women could be avoided by simply not smoking. Smoking is the main risk factor of lung and bronchus cancers; smokers can be up to 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers.Other risk factors include unhealthy diet and lack of exercise and exposure to second-hand smoke, radon gas, arsenic, tar and soot.

Screening: If you are aged 55-80, currently smoke or have smoked in the past fifteen years, annual lung cancer screenings are recommended. The only recommended screening available for lung cancer is a low-dose computed tomography, which uses low doses of radiation to take pictures of the lungs.

Colon and Rectal Cancer

Your odds: 1 in 19

Risk factors: Age is a significant risk factor with these cancers; more than ninety percent of them occur in people over the age of fifty. Inactivity, smoking, heavy drinking, a high-fat diet and a family history of bowel diseases are also contributing factors.

Screening: It can take ten to fifteen years for cancer cells to grow in the colon, so regular screenings can allow for removal of abnormal cells before there is an issue. Colonoscopies are the preferred screening method for colon and rectal cancers and regular screening should begin by age fifty. Of course, if you are at higher risk, you should begin screening earlier.

With the top three cancers that affect women, prevention and healthy living are the easiest way to decrease your risk. Pair reducing your risks with regular screening and good communication with your doctor, and you may be able to catch abnormal cells before they become cancer. Here’s to a long and healthy life!