Breast cancer affects one in eight women. Over 250,000 new cases are discovered and over 40,000 women die from breast cancer every year. Women between the age of 50 and 70 are at the highest risk. The key to survival is early detection as smaller tumors are the most treatable.
Cervical cancer was once the most common form of cancer in women. New cases have dropped since the introduction of the Pap smear in the 1950s, which can detect abnormal cell changes before they become cancerous. Today, cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer among women in the US with over 13,000 new cases and 4000 women dying each year. It’s still the third most common cancer in women worldwide.
Preventative screenings are important for detecting early breast cancer and cervical cancer. But the rules have changed for getting mammograms and Pap tests in the last two years. They are no longer recommended for certain age groups. Learn the new rules and what you can do to detect problems while they are still treatable.
Breast Cancer Screenings
Prior to the new guidelines, doctors recommended screening mammograms every one-to-two years from the age of 40 until 75 years old.
However, a new study by the American College of Physicians found that women between the age of 40 and 49 have a high rate of false positives from mammograms. This is mainly because they have denser breast tissue that women in their 50s. The stress caused from the need for further testing to rule out breast cancer may outweigh the good from testing women in this age group.
Unless you are at high risk, they no longer recommend screening mammograms until you reach age 50.
The task force also found no significant increase in the survival rate of those who were screened every year opposed to every other year. So, now the recommended schedule is a screening mammogram every two years from the age of 50 until 75.
Risk Factors for Developing Breast Cancer
If you have a high-risk factor such as family history, you should be screened earlier than the recommendations for healthy low-risk women.
- Family history is the biggest risk factor for breast
- First-degree relatives refer to mothers, sisters, and daughters, and second degree includes aunts and
- The risk increases if you have two first- or second-degree relatives who were diagnosed with breast cancer by the time they were 50, or three relatives at any
- Inherited genetic defects or mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast cancer.
Other risk factors include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Alcohol consumption
- Late childbirth (after 30) or never
If you have any of these symptoms, or positive results from a screening mammogram, you should have a more thorough diagnostic mammogram to determine whether it’s cancer or likely to develop into cancer.
- Breast pain
- Discharge in the nipple
- Thicker or darker skin around the breast
- Change in size or shape
Discuss with your doctor any risk factors you may have that would warrant earlier or more frequent breast cancer screenings.
Cervical Cancer Screenings
Pap smears used to be the only way to detect early cervical cancer, and it was recommended every three to five years for women between the ages of 21 and 65.
However, it’s known that at least 70% of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 forms of this virus, but only two of them cause cervical cancer. HPV is transmitted sexually, and it’s recommended that girls between the ages of 9 and 14 get vaccinated before they become sexually active. Most strands of the virus go away by themselves, but the high-risk strains can linger for years and may eventually develop into cancer.
Previously, it was recommended that women between the ages of 30 and 65 get screened for both HPV and Pap smears.
However, with the recent task force study from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), studies have shown there’s not a significant increase in detection of pre-cancer by doing both tests in the higher-risk age group of 30 to 65.
It’s now offered that women in this age group get the HPV testing every five years without getting a Pap Smear. HPV testing can be done at home, instead of going to a physician’s office, making that option more desirable for some.
However, getting Pap tests every three years either alone, or along with HPV testing every five years, is still an option. Discuss with your physician your options and the best recommendations for you.
In younger women, aged 21 to 29, Pap tests are still the recommended type of screening. High-risk strains of HPV do not usually show up for 10 to 15 years after contracting through sex, and the other HPV strains usually go away without any treatment at all. Because the other strains are more common, HPV testing at this age has a high percentage of false positives.
Women under 21 should not be tested at all for cervical cancer, and women who have had full hysterectomies and have never had cancer do not need Pap tests.
Risk Factors for Developing Cervical Cancer
Since most cervical cancers are caused by HPV passed through sex, if you are sexually active and were never vaccinated for HPV for it as a teenager, you may be at higher risk.
Also, women with compromised or deficient immune systems are at higher risk. Below are the most common risk factors for developing cervical cancer:
- Women who are HIV positive
- Increases with Age
- Genital Herpes
- Birth control pills
- Exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) which was given to women to prevent miscarriages until the 70s. Their female children are at higher risk
- Multiple sexual partners
- Given birth to three or more children
Talk to your doctor if you feel you are at higher risk so they can determine how often, or which screening is best suited for you.
Understanding the New Recommendations
The new recommendations by the USPSTF and the American College of Physicians are intended to make testing more reliable, with less false positives that require more expensive and invasive testing.
However, you should discuss these new options with your doctor especially if you are higher at risk because of family history.
Remember, breast and cervical cancer are both preventable and treatable with early detection through screening.