Women and cancer

In 2005 in Australia, 56,158 women were diagnosed with cancer and 17,080 died from it. Women have a one in three chance of being diagnosed with cancer before the age of 85, compared with a one in two chance for men.

Generally, the chances of developing cancer (risk) increases with age for both men and women.

Cancers that affect women | How women can reduce their risk of cancer | Finding cancer early

The four most common cancers that affect women

Breast cancer and gynaecological cancers (cancers affecting the female reproductive organs) are not the only types of cancers that affect women. After breast cancer, the most common types of cancers that affect women living in Western Australia (WA) are bowel cancer, melanoma, and lung cancer. To find out more about these cancers, select the links below:

Cancers that only affect women

Lung cancer

Despite being a mostly preventable disease, lung cancer is still one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers and the leading cause of cancer deaths among WA women. In WA in 2008, 382 women were diagnosed with lung cancer and 290 died from the disease. Most cases of lung cancer can be attributed to cigarette smoking.

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How women can reduce their risk of cancer

There are a number of things you can do to help reduce your chances (risk) of developing cancer.  These include:

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Finding cancer early

Breast cancer

Like most cancers, breast cancer is more easily and successfully treated if first detected in its early stages. Learning how your breasts change and feel at different times will help you understand what is normaly for you. Most breast changes are not due to cancer, but you should see your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following unusual changes:

  • A lump, lumpiness of thickening in the breast or armpit
  • Dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin
  • Changes to the nipple (eg inversion, new discharge or itchy, ulcerated skin)
  • New persistent pain

Women aged 50-74 should have a mammogram (breast x-ray) at BreastScreen WA every two years.

Cancer Council WA supports Cancer Australia's statement and BreastScreen Australia's statement on the use of thermography for breast cancer screening. As there is insufficient evidence to suggest that thermography is an effective means of detecting breast cancer early and reducing the number of deaths from breast cancer, it is not recommended that you use thermography to screen for breast cancer.

Find out more about breast cancer and being breast aware.

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Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can be treated more successfully when an early diagnosis is made. It is recommended that women over 50 years of age be screened for bowel cancer every two years, using a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT). FOBTs detect small traces of blood in bowel motions, which can be (but is not necessarily) a sign of bowel cancer. If you are over 50, see your GP about screening for bowel cancer.

Women over 50 may be eligible for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP), and will receive a free FOBT in the mail, find out when you'll get a kit.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, it is important to see your GP as soon as possible:

  • Bleeding from the rectum or sign of blood after bowel motion
  • Change in bowel habit (eg constipation or diarrhoea)
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Loss of appetite or weight for no obvious reason
  • Unexplained tiredness, weakness or breathlessness

Find out more about bowel cancer screening.

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Skin cancer

Regular skin checks increase your chance of finding skin cancer at an early and highly treatable stage. Skin cancers can sometimes occur on areas not usually exposed to the sun - so check your whole body. If you see a spot that has changed in size, shape or colour, or a non-healing sore, see your GP as soon as you can. You can also ask your GP for a skin examination if there are areas you can't see properly or if you are unsure what to look for.

Find out more about checking for skin cancer.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable of all cancers. Most women with precancerous cell changes will not have symptoms. Experiencing symptoms typically means a cancer has developed. Symptoms may include irregular bleeding, discomfort or bleeding during or after intercourse, or unusual vaginal discharge. Pelvic pain, swollen legs, excessive tiredness or backache may be symptoms or more advanced cancer.

To increase the chance of detecting cervical cancer early, women should have a Pap smear every two years from the age of 18 until the age of 70. You should still have regular Pap smears even if you have received the HPV vaccination. The Pap smear detects pre-cancerous cells on the cervix, which can be treated before they become cancer. After 70 years of age your doctor may advise it's safe to stop.

 New screening test recommendations

The Federal Government has undertaken a review of the national cervical screening program to ensure it continues to be as effective as it can be. The recommended changes to screening procedures are not anticipated to come into effect before 2016, so it is still vital that women continue to have their Pap tests as soon as they are due.

You can find out more about these changes on the National Cervical Screening Program Renewal website.

Find out more about the WA Cervical Cancer Prevention Program.

Find our more about cervical cancer and HPV.

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Other gynaecological cancers

There are currently no screening tests for ovarian, uterine, vaginal or vulval cancers. Your doctor may do a pelvic examination when you have a Pap smear. This involves looking at the vulva and vagina, and feeling the uterus and ovaries.

It is important to be aware of the following symptoms and talk to your doctor if you notice any abnormal changes that persist for more than 3-4 weeks. Do keep in mind that these symptoms are common to many conditions, and most women who experience them will not have cancer.

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (eg bleeding after intercourse, persistent bleeding between periods or bleeding that occurs six months or more after menopause)
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Lower abdominal swelling and/or discomfort
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Changes in bowel or bladder function
  • Severe itchiness and/or changes to the vulva

Find out more about ovarian cancer.

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