Living Well

Common Cancers Affecting Women

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The cancers that most affect women are breast, colorectal and lung cancers. Knowing about these diseases and what you can do may save your life.

1. Breast Cancer

One in 16 women in Singapore may get breast cancer, with an increased level of occurrence from the ages 40-50.

What is breast cancer?

Breast Cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are detected in the tissues of the breast. These cells usually arise from the ducts or the lobules in the breast. These cancer cells can then spread within the tissue or organ and to other parts of the body.

Who’s at risk?

You are, if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancers. These cancers can be caused by mutations in certain genes. If you observe such cancers being diagnosed at a young age among your close female relatives, you run an increased risk of getting it. Women who’ve had breast lumps (benign or not) and who’ve had longer exposure to oestrogen are also prone to the disease. This means women who have early periods or late menopause (in their mid- to late 50s), and those who have few or no children. If you fall within these categories, you’re more likely to get oestrogen-dependent cancers, like breast cancer and uterine cancer

How to protect yourself?

Get comfortable with doing breast self-examinations. Women from 30 years old are encouraged to start breast self examinations at least once a month, so they can recognise irregular lumps. Not all breast lumps are a cause for worry; some are due to hormonal changes as a result of your period. The best time to do a breast self-examination is one week after your period, when your hormones have settled. If you spot these warning signs – hard, persistent breast lumps, discharge from the nipples when you’re not breastfeeding and a rash or puckering of the skin – consult your doctor immediately.

Between the ages of 40 and 50, have a mammogram once a year to screen for breast cancer. If your mammogram results have been stable, you can reduce the frequency to once every two or three years.

2. Colorectal Cancer

It is the most common cancer in Singapore. The incidence of this cancer has been steadily increasing in both males and females.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer, commonly known as colon cancer or bowel cancer, originates from the tissues of the colon (the longest part of the large intestine) or rectum (the last several inches of the large intestine before the anus).

Who’s at risk?

As with breast cancer, women with a family history of cancers that have the same genetic makeup are more likely to develop colorectal cancer. It is also closely associated with diet, more so if you enjoy food high in fat, cholesterol and sugar. This can result in insulin resistance, where the body produces excess sugar and goes into a state of overgrowth – including the abnormal cells.

How to protect yourself?

If you have a strong family history of the disease, consider doing a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy earlier. For example, if you have brothers or sisters getting colorectal cancer by 43, you can get screened from 38 – five years before the earliest cancer in your family.

3. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in women in Singapore.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer originates from tissues of the lung, usually from cells lining the air passages.

Who’s at risk?

Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer; smokers are at least 15-25 times more likely than non-smokers to develop lung cancer. Age appears to be a factor too; those diagnosed with it tend to be above 60. The jury is still out on why non smokers get lung cancer. But it is believed to be the result of mutations in epidermal growth factor receptor protein molecules (which regulate cell growth), and their interaction with chemicals outside the cell. The mutations may be caused by persistent passive smoking or exposure to chemicals like asbestos, chromium and nickel.

How to protect yourself?

Stop smoking to significantly decrease your risk of lung cancer. Avoid inhaling second-hand smoke too. A general cancer-prevention method is to maintain a healthy diet – eat fresh food that’s healthily prepared – and lead an active lifestyle.

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