Overview of Cancer in Women

Overview of Cancer in Women

Because of the enormous public health awareness campaigns in the United States, saying the words “cancer” and “women” often makes people think immediately of breast cancer. This has some good and negative consequences. It is important to encourage public awareness of common cancers because early detection and treatment allows the best possible treatment. Like most cancer, breast cancer can often be manageable if treated at an early stage. The negative part of this is that it over-emphasizes the actual threat to woman’s health from breast cancer and helps fuel lack of concern for cancers that are a much larger risk to a woman’s health such as lung cancer or colon cancer.

The purpose of this article is to present an overview of cancer in women in the United States. Several government sponsored healthcare agencies have collected enormous amounts of data about cancer statistics. These statistics are important because they identify common cancers and also identify populations of people that have an increased risk for a certain type of cancer. This general field of studying disease in populations of people is called epidemiology.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Program of Cancer Registries (NPCR), the most common cancers for women in the United States are as follows:


The top 10 most common cancers diagnosed in women in the United States from 2003-2007.

This data presents the overall statistics and an average for all women in the United States. These percentages are different if specific sub-populations are looked at, such as all women ages 20-30 or African-American women over the age of 65. Fortunately, the overall trends are similar among many groups of women and help guide the recommendations for screening guidelines.

The most common causes of death from cancer in women in the United States are:


The top 10 most common causes of death from cancer in women in the United States from 2003-2007.

Despite the many different types of cancers, there are common “red flag” symptoms that all women should be aware of that might signify cancer. The presence of these symptoms does not diagnose or indicate a cancer is present but should prompt further investigation by your doctor. If you have any of these symptoms you should tell your doctor about them. These “red flag” symptoms of possible cancer in women include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A change in the breast such as lump, nipple inversion, discharge.
    • The key word here is CHANGE. Many women mistakenly think that any lump, inversion, bloody nipple discharge or rash implies the presence of a breast cancer. The appearance of a new symptom and change is much more significant. Any of these symptoms should be followed and discussed with your doctor however because it may be difficult to interpret a true change and something that you have just noticed for the first time when it has been present for some time.
  • Any blood passed with bowel movement or from the rectum
  • Unexplained pain in the stomach or chest that does not go away
  • Yellow or orange discoloration of the skin (i.e. jaundice)
  • A change in a skin mole or spot
  • Persistent cough or bloody cough
  • Post-menopausal vaginal bleeding

These eight “red flag” symptoms will be found in some combination with the commonest of cancers experienced by women. If any of these are present alone or in combination they should be brought to the attention of your doctor for further investigation.

The following is an abbreviated list of the commonest cancers in women and information about common symptoms and screening of each.

Lung Cancer: Unfortunately, marketing in the mass media helped link women’s liberation to smoking and independence. This created many more women smokers and years later the increase in lung cancer deaths among women has been dramatic. Lung cancer is the most common cause of death from cancer for women in the United States.

There is no good screening test for lung cancer like there is for breast or colon cancer. The most effective way to treat lung cancer is to prevent it. The most common cause and modifiable risk factor associated with lung cancer is overwhelmingly cigarette smoking. Smoking cessation is perhaps the single biggest way to improve health of the average American and the most important way to reduce the burden of disease and cost of healthcare.

Smoking negatively affects every bodily organ. The symptoms of lung cancer can be rather vague but include weight loss, cough, bloody cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. The testing of lung cancer involves chest x-ray, CAT scan of the chest and often invasive testing such as bronchoscopy or biopsy.

Breast Cancer: This is the most common cancer diagnosed in women. The symptoms of breast cancer are not very specific but can include breast lumps, nipple discharge, rash, lumps in the armpit, nipple inversion, and skin dimpling of the breast. The vast majority of breast pain is not from cancer although many women are immediately concerned about this if they experience breast pain.

The emphasis of breast cancer treatment has shifted towards prevention and early screening. This has caused the number of cases diagnosed each year to dramatically increase; however, many of these are very early stage or pre-cancerous lesions. Mammogram and breast examination are the primary means of screening the general population and generally begin around age 40.

Colon and Rectal Cancer: Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in women and is also the third most common cause of death from cancer in women. Fortunately, there are many very effective treatments for colorectal cancer if it is detected early. This is the rationale behind the mass screening guidelines in place.

In the average-risk person without symptoms, screening should begin at the age of 50 with a colonoscopy at least every ten years and annual fecal occult blood testing. Symptoms of colon or rectal cancer can be vague but any passage of blood from the rectum is considered a red flag symptom and should prompt further investigation. Other symptoms include weight loss, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits such as constipation, straining, and very thin caliber stools.

Screening guidelines for all cancers, including colorectal cancer, evolve over time. Each person should discuss their risk with their physician.

Uterine Cancer: The fourth most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States involves the lining of the uterus. Cancers in this area have relatively few symptoms early on. Any post-menopausal bleeding, bleeding after intercourse or unusual pattern of bleeding should prompt notification of your physician for further investigation.

Pancreatic Cancer: Cancer of the pancreas is the fourth most common cause of death from cancer among women in the United States. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer can vary based upon the location of the cancer and the type of pancreatic cancer. Unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, jaundice, and vomiting might all occur with pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately there is no screening test for cancer of the pancreas and many are found only after they have been present for some time and have already spread to another part of the body. If any of these symptoms occur they should be brought to the attention of your doctor for further attention.


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  6. This article was originally published on September 3, 2012 and last revision and update was 9/4/2015.