Cancers Affecting Women

Before you know how to affect cancer, you must know which cancers affect women. Yes, cancer is indiscriminate. However, certain cancers are known to affect primarily women or behave differently in women and therefore call for differing treatments. These cancers include breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, which affect women, and skin cancer and lung cancer, which are more aggressive in women than in men.

Our oncologists specialize in treating these types of cancers, but can, of course, treat the full range of cancers that can affect women.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can strike at any age. That is why it is important to know your family history and your risks as well. Genetic testing is one way to determine your risk. Although it may seem there are more cases of breast cancer, the number of deaths have actually decreased in the last 10 years. This is likely due to early detection and treatment.

Women should begin getting an annual mammogram at age 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you and your physician may decide to start earlier, like age 35. Performing breast self-exams is important to start in your twenties. This is vital for women to know their bodies and notice any changes from month-to-month.

A lot of emphasis is put on getting a yearly mammogram. This screening should not be overlooked as you get into your sixties and seventies. In fact, the risk of breast cancer increases with age, without drop-off until after age 84. Statistics show that more than half of breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women age 65 or older, and as many as 45 percent are diagnosed after age 70.

So, with all this talk about what to do if you're diagnosed, where's the information about prevention? Although, much of your risk depends on family history, there are a few lifestyle options that may reduce your risk of getting breast cancer.

North Kansas City Hospital's specialized Breast Care program offers special services to women diagnosed with breast cancer. And we're one of only two hospitals in the metro area to achieve Breast Imaging Center of Excellence.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer, or cancer of the ovaries, was once called the "silent killer" because symptoms appear so late that the cancer was well advanced. However, new studies find early detection is possible. The symptoms can almost always be associated with more common conditions, but when they occur frequently and last for more than a few weeks, you should contact your gynecologist.


  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms: urgent or frequent feelings of needing to go

Risk Factors

  • Genetic testing can help determine risk.
  • Family and personal history of ovarian and breast cancer can increase risk.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapies (HRT)
  • Increasing age, starting your menstrual cycle before age 12, and going through menopause at an older age.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Risk actually decreases with the more children a woman has and the earlier in life she gives birth.


It is important to have an annual pelvic exam since the symptoms are often overlooked. If genetic testing reveals a mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, preventive surgery to remove a woman's ovaries is an option to discuss with your physician. Another option to explore with your doctor is the CA-125 test.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, often goes unnoticed because the symptoms are similar to many other ailments. Many women pass these symptoms off as PMS or ovulation pains. When symptoms are present, they usually do not appear until the cancer is more advanced. This can vary from woman to woman.


  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Unusual heavy discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during urination
  • Bleeding between regular menstrual periods, after sexual intercourse, douching or pelvic exam

Risk Factors

  • Giving birth to many children
  • Having many sexual partners
  • Having first sexual intercourse at a young age
  • Smoking
  • Oral contraceptives (the pill)
  • Weakened immune system


According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman's first Pap test should be 3 years after becoming sexually active or at age 21 - whichever comes first. After that, a Pap should be part of a yearly gynecological exam.

Having regular Pap tests is one of the best ways to help protect against cervical cancer. A Pap test can't diagnose HPV, but it can look for abnormal cells (that are caused by HPV) in the lining of the cervix before the cells become precancers or cancer.

Skin Cancer

Did you know that up to 90% of skin changes that people think are related to aging are actually from the sun?

Skin damage, called photo-aging, not only contributes to wrinkles, but it can also cause loose or sagging skin or a loss of elasticity and firmness. It may also give your skin a leathery texture or cause spots and unevenness in color. The appearance of your skin may be your primary focus, but you cannot forget that excessive skin damage can lead to skin cancers.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. There are three types of cancer that are most commonly discussed:

  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer with about 1 million cases per year. While rarely fatal, it can be very disfiguring.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is another common form of skin cancer, with about 250,000 cases and 2,500 deaths per year.
  • Melanoma is the most serious skin cancer, and is less common than basal or squamous cell cancers. Melanoma occurrences are growing faster than any other kind of cancer. Melanoma is often found in white men, but it also affects younger women with fair skin or with many moles. If detected early, the survival rate is nearly 99%.

What can you do to protect your skin while enjoying outside activities?

Self Examination – Check your skin for any changes or new moles. And don’t just check the easy places. Check your scalp, the back of your legs, under your breasts and your back. Use a mirror if necessary.

Request Mole Mapping – Your dermatologist can "map" your moles by taking photographs of your skin and comparing older photos to new photos for changes.

Avoid Too Much Sun – Use sun screen with an SPF of 15 or more (and don't forget to re-apply!), wear a hat, long sleeves or a cover-up.

See a Dermatologist Annually – Get yourself checked by a professional and ask questions about your risk, your skin type and any treatments that may be right for you.

Lung Cancer

Although lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. in both men and women, it is also one of the most preventable kinds of cancer. At least four out of five cases are associated with cigarette smoking. Lung cancer is a different disease in women than in men though. Since 1990 lung cancer cases in women has continued to climb.  More than 250,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, most between the ages of 40-70.


More and more women are smoking, but 20,000-25,000 lung cancer patients in the United States have never smoked and 80-90% are women. Experts don't know, but say estrogen may act as a tumor promoter or affect receptors that are directly in the lung cancer cells. However, women do better with the newer, targeted treatments.

What Causes Lung Cancer?

About 85% of lung cancer is caused by smoking. Like with other cancers, each person's genetic history plays a part. The fact that lung cancer runs in some families suggests that a predisposition can be inherited. Additionally, certain genetic traits have been identified that make some people more susceptible than others to cancer-causing substances like those found in tobacco smoke.

If you smoke one pack of cigarettes a day, you are 20 times more likely than someone who does not smoke, to develop lung cancer. For people who smoke more than two packs a day, the risk more than triples. Secondhand smoke can also be dangerous and expose people to tobacco smoke, increasing the risk of lung cancer compared to those in a smoke-free environment.

Diet can also play a part in the development of lung cancer. As with other diseases, people who consume large amounts of fat or have high cholesterol increase their risks.

Learn more about our comprehensive cancer care at North Kansas City Hospital.