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Early Detection and Prevention of Female Cancers

September 18, 2012

'Lunch and Learn' Session on Screenings and Risk Reduction

While medical experts continue to make advances in the treatment of various female cancers, early detection and measures to prevent cancer in the first place are still key factors in preventing cancer deaths.

"The majority of cancers occur 'randomly,' but we are making good progress in creating awareness of lifestyle choices and other factors that can put women at higher risk for cancer," says Dr. Vandana B. Sharma, a medical oncologist on the medical staff at Washington Hospital. "And it is still true that finding cancer at an early stage greatly improves the chances that it can be treated successfully."

To help women in the community learn more about the latest screening guidelines for breast, cervical, ovarian and endometrial (uterine) cancers, as well as what lifestyle changes they can make to decrease cancer risks, the Washington Women's Center is offering a Lunch and Learn session featuring Dr. Sharma on Thursday, September 27 from noon to 1 p.m. The Women's Center is located at 2500 Mowry Avenue, Suite 150, in Fremont.

Screening Guidelines

"There has been some controversy about the screening guidelines for breast cancer," Dr. Sharma says. "The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released recommendations in 2009 for women to begin having screening mammography at age 50, and to have mammograms every two years. Other organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, continue to recommend that women should begin mammography screenings at age 40 - or earlier if they are at high risk - and continue to have a mammogram every year. I will cover the pros and cons of the various screening recommendations to help women understand their options.

"Earlier this year, the Preventive Services Task Force issued new recommendations for screenings for cervical cancer," she adds. "They now recommend Pap smears for women ages 21 to 65 every three years or, for women ages 30 to 65 who want to have longer screening intervals, a combination of Pap smear and testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer every five years. Women at a high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more often. The American Cancer Society recommendations for cervical cancer screenings are similar, but there are some minor differences that we can discuss at the Lunch and Learn session."

Dr. Sharma notes that, unfortunately, there currently are no definitive screening tests or exams to find endometrial or ovarian cancer in women who are at average risk and have no symptoms. "Women who are at high risk for either of these cancers should consult their physicians right away if they experience any suspicious symptoms," she cautions.

Symptoms of endometrial cancer might include:

  • Unusual bleeding, spotting or other discharge.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • Feeling a lump in the pelvic area.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

Finding ovarian cancer at an early stage is difficult because the ovaries are deep in the body, and many symptoms of ovarian cancer can also be caused by other conditions. Symptoms might include:

  • Abdominal swelling, especially when accompanied by weight loss.
  • Pelvic pressure or stomach pain.
  • Loss of appetite or a sense of being full quickly.
  • Frequent urination or urinary urgency.
  • Fatigue.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Back pain.
  • Constipation.
  • Changes in your menstrual cycle.

"For breast, uterine and ovarian cancers, it's very important to know your family history, since there can be a strong genetic component to these cancers," Dr. Sharma emphasizes.

Risk Reduction and Cancer Prevention

"We have known for a long time that leading a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risks for cancer, but there are several recent studies that are highlighting the role that being overweight or obese can play in increasing cancer risk," Dr. Sharma says. "Some studies show, for example, that reducing your weight through proper diet and regular exercise can cut your cancer risk by as much as 50 percent."

Other studies have focused on the cancer risks associated with alcohol consumption.

"In terms of breast cancer risk, there are strong data confirming the role of alcohol," Dr. Sharma explains. "Limiting your weekly alcohol consumption to three 4-ounce servings of wine, beer or hard liquor may reduce the incidence of breast cancer by up to 30 percent."

Dr. Sharma also recommends limiting your exposure to known carcinogens: "Smoking tobacco can increase your risk for numerous types of cancer, not just lung cancer," she explains. "Also, while it's not strictly a 'female' cancer, you should avoid the UV rays that cause skin cancer. In young women, there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of melanoma, which we believe is related to an increase in the use of tanning beds. The FDA has even issued an alert against using tanning beds. That 'healthy-looking tan' is really not so healthy!"

Another possible preventive measure that may make a difference in your cancer risk is to use aspirin on a daily basis. "Regularly taking one full aspirin a day has shown some effectiveness in cutting people's cancer risk," Dr. Sharma says. "It's important to talk with your doctor before starting a daily aspirin regimen, though, because you have to balance the risks for cancer with the risks for internal bleeding that aspirin might cause."

Dr. Sharma especially encourages young women to take advantage of the vaccines that have been developed to protect against the HPV infections that are the main cause of cervical cancer.

"Cervical cancer is one of the top three cancers worldwide, but with regular Pap smear screenings and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions, we have reduced cervical cancer dramatically in the United States," she says. "And now we have an incredible opportunity to prevent most cervical cancers with these anti-viral vaccines. We are hoping that cervical cancer will soon go the way of smallpox and other viral diseases that have been eradicated by vaccines."

Think Pink Event Coming in October

The Washington Women's Center will stage its annual Think Pink Event on Tuesday, October 16. The free event celebrates Breast Cancer Awareness Month and will include an evening of educational lectures, interactive booths, health screenings, and fun activities. The event will take place from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the tent atrium at Washington West at 2500 Mowry Avenue. Please note, the original date of the event was October 18 but has been changed to October 16. To register, visit www.whhs.com

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