5 Most Common Cancers… And How You Can Outsmart Them


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By Charlotte Huff; Photography by Pixabay

There’s been a ton of well-deserved attention on breast cancer, but we need to think beyond the pink – these other types can pose serious threats to women too. The empowering news is: you can do a lot to outsmart them.

Before the famous breast-cancer symbol – the delicate pink ribbon – was created in 1991, the disease suffered from neglect. Now, with the pink-ifying of everything from perfume bottles to cricket helmets each October, most of us can’t even remember that time. And that’s a good thing: bringing breast cancer to the forefront has yielded some big scientific wins, including 3D mammography (a test that’s been shown to improve detection and drive down nerve-racking false alarms). And women are way more vigilant about looking out for lumps.

Added to this, cancer is still on the rise. Insurance company Liberty recently revealed that one in four claims submitted in the past year was cancer-related. Added to that, a third of claims submitted by women were for cancer. Thankfully, time is on your side. Some cancers take 10 years or more to develop, which means there’s a lot you can do now to help squelch the risk of getting sick later in life, says Dr Graham Colditz, a leading cancer expert and developer of the site.

Here, what you need to know to help protect yourself from five dangerous types.

Lung Cancer

Biggest Risk Factors

Unsurprisingly, cigarettes are the top cause among smokers. But among those who don’t light up, exposure to radon – an odourless, naturally occurring radioactive gas that can seep into your home through cracks in the foundation – tops the list. While no stats were available for SA, in the US, 21 000 lung-cancer deaths are attributed to radon each year.

Your Anti-C Strategy

If you don’t smoke, don’t start now. Sounds like a no-brainer, but recent research finds that women spark up their first cigarette when they’re around 16 years old and go 20 years without quitting. There’s danger no matter what you puff: cancer rates in those who smoke so-called light or low-tar cigarettes aren’t any lower than in those who puff regular cigs. The only fix is to ditch the butts – the sooner, the better. Quitting by your mid-forties can extend your life by about a decade, say researchers. What else you can do:

1. Monitor your breathing
Lung CT scans aren’t recommended until age 55, regardless of your smoking history, so see your doctor if you have a nagging cough, unusual (and persistent) shortness of breath or wheezing, or if you cough up blood.

2. Open your windows
“Radon is an inert radioactive gas that’s generated by the radioactive decay of radium, which is found in cement, soil and bricks,” explains Prof Richard Newman, associate professor in physics at Stellenbosch University. While it’s a naturally occurring gas, high levels of exposure can cause lung cancer. “In winter, people often close their windows. This can cause radon build-up,” says Newman. The simplest way to reduce your risk? “Open your windows regularly,” he advises. This goes for all rooms – levels can vary from room to room in the same house. And, if you’re really worried, speak to the physics department at your nearest university about having the levels in your home tested.

Skin Cancer

Biggest Risk Factors

UV radiation penetrates the skin and alters the genetic coding, changing a normal cell into a fast-growing cancer cell, explains Dr Dagmar Whitaker, president of the Dermatology Society of South Africa. Fast-growing skin is the most sensitive to damage – that’s why 80 percent of the lifetime damage happens in the first 20 years of your life, she adds. Tanning booths are particularly dangerous because they deliver a hefty dose of UV radiation in a short period of time. Research shows a 20 percent higher melanoma risk in those who use them compared with people who’ve never fake-baked – and double the risk for those who start before age 35.

Your Anti-C Strategy

You can’t completely undo skin damage done in your teens, but curbing your current sun exposure can help ward off melanomas, as well as basal- and squamous cell skin cancers – two types that are less deadly but more common.

1. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing.
Thick, tightly woven, synthetic materials offer the most protection, as do clothes labelled UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor.

2. Slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Use one with an SPF of 50, regardless of the weather – the sun’s rays can penetrate through clouds and even glass! And ignore the “waterproof” label; it’s not effective, says Whitaker. Instead, apply a shot glass-size amount to your body and reapply every two hours (more often if you’ve been in the water or sweating). Be vigilant about your arms and legs, where melanomas are most frequently found.

3. See a dermatologist about suspicious moles.
Any sensation or anything new warrants a visit to the doctor, says Whitaker.

Cervical And Ovarian Cancers

Biggest Risk Factors

Sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) can trigger cervical cancer, with at least a dozen strains linked to the disease. Ovarian-cancer risk is much higher in women who carry a BRCA mutation.

Your Anti-C Strategy 

Pap smears can identify precancerous cells in the cervix; experts now recommend getting this test every three years instead of annually. And if you’re not 27 yet, the HPV vaccine is still an option. Other strategies:

1. Know the signs
Notify your doc about prolonged abdominal bloating (a red flag for ovarian cancer) or suddenly heavy or irregular periods (a symptom of both cancers), says Dr Karen Lu, co-author and editor of Hereditary Gynaecologic Cancer: Risk, Prevention and Management.

2. Check your history
Women who have the BRCA mutation or a strong family history should consider getting their ovaries removed in their thirties or forties, after they’re done having kids, says Lu.

3. Reconsider the Pill
It can reduce ovarian-cancer risk but increase risk of cervical C. Talk to your doc about what’s best, based on your history.

Colon Cancer

Biggest Risk Factors

Know your family history. Your risk doubles if a sibling or parent was diagnosed before age 55. That’s because roughly one in four cases appears to run in families. And lay off the vices: 3.6 percent of all cancers have been linked to knocking back liquor; other studies have found smoking can up your risk of colon cancer by as much as 40 percent.

Your Anti-C Strategy

Screening and treatment advances have sent survival rates soaring, in part because more worrisome polyps are being removed before they become cancerous. Still, unless you have a strong family history, colonoscopies aren’t suggested until age 50. So what can you do now?

1. Listen to your gut
Persistent cramps, flatulence and abdominal pain are common red flags (as are loose or bloody stools and chronic constipation).

2. Stay slim and active
This suppresses higher blood-sugar levels that can spur cancers, says Colditz.

3. Limit red and processed meat
Studies have linked these foods to an increased risk; experts recommend eating no more than three servings (about 60g) of red meat, sausages, cold meats and bacon per week.

Looking for more info on cancer? Here are four breast cancer risk factors you might not know.

Watch ON: Cancer Health Health Advice