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By William Peters

M.D., Ph.D. on 05/17/2017

A Review of Female Cancers for Womens Health Week

Each year during the month of May, we join women from across the country in celebrating National Women’s Health Week. This year, National Women’s Health Week is from May 14 - 20. The observance is an opportunity to empower women to make their health and wellness a priority and encourage them to take steps toward improvement. 


In addition to staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and undergoing routine medical check-ups, I believe it is important for women to learn all they can about breast and gynecologic (female reproductive) cancer including screening recommendations, signs, symptoms and risk factors. 


Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in American women. Simply being a woman increases the risk of developing breast cancer and other risk factors include aging and genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. A woman’s breast cancer risk nearly doubles when she has a first-degree relative – mother, sister, or daughter – who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, but 85 percent of women who get breast cancer have no family history of the disease.


Genetic mutations like BRCA and those found in Lynch syndrome – a condition that raises the risk of colon cancer – have also been linked to ovarian cancers. In addition, women who are over 50, have never been pregnant, got their period before age 12, experienced menopause after age 52, have polycystic ovarian syndrome, smoke, use an intrauterine device, or have undergone fertility treatment are also at a higher risk for ovarian cancer. 


Another female cancer that all women should be aware of is cervical cancer. As the name indicates, it starts in the cervix, the lowest portion of the uterus. Once a common gynecologic cancer, cervical cancer cases have declined by nearly 50 percent over the past 40 years, thanks primarily to the widespread use of the Pap test. Since the Pap test is a screening test, it doesn’t prevent cervical cancer, however, the test can identify pre-cancerous changes and early stage malignancy, making prompt treatment possible.


Human papilloma virus – HPV – is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. Vaccines to prevent HPV are recommended for adolescents ages 11 or 12 and the series may even be started in children as young as 9. The vaccine is recommended for females through age 26 and males through age 21. High-risk males may be vaccinated through age 26.


As with all cancers, early detection and prompt treatment of breast and gynecologic cancer offers the best chance for cure. Traditionally, women are the family caretakers, but they sometimes forget to care for themselves. The following is important information I believe all women should know about each of the cancers discussed above:




Cancer Types

Signs & Symptoms

Screening Recommendations



Changes in the breast not related to the menstrual cycle such as lumps, nipple discharge or inversion, skin dimpling, redness, itching or open sores

Yearly mammograms starting at age 40 (discuss with your doctor what is right for you). For women at high risk, a screening MRI may also be recommended



Symptoms are often absent or vague but may include bloating, urinary frequency or urgency, abdominal fullness or pain

No routine screening tests are available. Transvaginal ultrasound may identify pelvic masses



No symptoms early-on but eventually abnormal vaginal bleeding, painful intercourse, or bloody vaginal discharge

Pap test every 3 years starting at age 21. From age 30 to 65, HPV testing and Pap recommended every 5 years




Beginning last fall, Ackerman Cancer Center’s Amelia Island office joined forces with the Pink Ribbon Ladies female cancer patient organization to offer a monthly support group for women with female cancers. The group meets the second Monday of the month and is open to patients, survivors and caregivers of those with any female cancer. For more information on this group or other area support groups, contact ACC’s social work department at 904-277-2700. 


All my best,

William Peters, M.D., Ph.D.

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