Protect yourself from cancers that commonly affect women

 Protect yourself from cancers that commonly affect women

Make your health a priority  …………
The word ‘cancer’ can inspire fear and anxiety in many people1 and yet, cancer therapies have evolved  considerably in recent decades, substantially improving the quality of life and survival of patients with  cancer.2 Cancer is the cause of 10% of deaths in South Africa.3

Breast cancer awareness is particularly relevant for South Africans because it is the most common  cancer among women of all races, affecting as many as 1 out of every 1 000 and being responsible for  1 out of every 12 cancer deaths.3,4,5 A diagnosis of breast cancer is alarming to every women, creating  physical and emotional concerns that interfere with quality of life and employment.6 Multidisciplinary health care is essential because depression is common after a breast cancer diagnosis, with many  women reporting a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and a lack of motivation to effectively cope  with challenges.6 

Other cancers that commonly affect South African women include cervical, colorectal, uterine, skin and lung, as well as cancers of the head and neck and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.4,5,7 It is important for  women to be empowered with knowledge regarding lowering their risk and to recognise warning signs of cancer7 and, to this end, MSD remains committed to the goals of increasing awareness regarding  women’s cancers. Equally important are annual health check-ups and recommended cancer  screenings, these should never be disregarded.7 

Cancer screening – early detection means easier to treat 

All women are at increased risk of breast cancer as they age, particularly those with a family history  of breast cancer.4,8 The most common sign is a new lump or mass in the breast tissue.8 Other possible  signs include swelling of all or part of the breast, skin irritation or dimpling, breast and/or nipple pain,  the nipple turning inward, redness, scaliness or thickening of the skin of the nipple or breast, a nipple  discharge other than milk, and a lump in the underarm area.8 Having one or more signs does not mean  that you have breast cancer, but if the sign(s) persist for two weeks or longer, it is recommended that  you consult with your doctor.9 

Regular screening for breast cancer creates the opportunity for an earlier diagnosis, which improves  the response to treatment and reduces the need for mastectomy.4 Women should perform a self breast examination once a month two days after their period and should have a clinical breast  examination as part of their annual health check-up.4,8 CANSA offers excellent guidance for performing  self-breast examination, available at An  annual mammogram is recommended for women between the ages of 40 and 55 years, a  mammogram every second year is usually sufficient for those older than 55 years.4 Genetic testing can  be useful in certain cases and might help to make treatment decisions.4 

New innovations in cancer treatment 

MSD continue to develop and provide effective new therapies for the treatment of various cancers.  Immunotherapy is different to chemotherapy or radiation therapy in that it works with your immune  cells to help fight the cancer. Immunotherapy for the treatment of cancers of the skin, lung, head and  neck, stomach cancer, cervical cancer, certain types of breast cancer and other cancers are now  available and accessible in South Africa.11 

What are the warning signs of cancer that shouldn’t be ignored? 

The warning signs of cancers, particularly gynaecological cancers, can be similar to the symptoms of  other conditions and so it is important to know what to look out for.9 Recognising these symptoms  can increase your chances of detecting cancer early and when it is most treatable.8 Abnormal  symptoms that should alert you to consult with your doctor for further investigation include: 

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding 
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Vaginal discharge that is discoloured with blood 
  • Constant fatigue 
  • Loss of appetite or feeling full all of the time 
  • Persistent indigestion or nausea 
  • Changes in bathroom and bowel habits 
  • Changes in the breasts 
  • Pain in the pelvis or abdominal area.9

How best to protect yourself from getting cancer? 

The trend towards a Westernised lifestyle has had the unfortunate consequences of unhealthy dietary  habits, lack of physical activity, obesity, and increased alcohol and tobacco use among the general  population.3,12 As with many other diseases, poor lifestyle choices are associated with higher risks of  developing cancer.3 Exposure to environmental chemicals can also increase the risk of cancer,4 as can  infection with certain viruses such as HIV and human papilloma virus (HPV).3 By avoiding or modifying  these established risk factors for cancer, 30-50% of cancers can be prevented.13 

If you or someone close to you suspect that they have cancer, it is important to communicate openly  with your doctor or nurse to discuss the options for diagnosing and treating the illness. Social support  from family, friends and healthcare workers is fundamental to helping women cope with their fears  concerning cancer and, should it be necessary, to adhere to their treatment and medication.14 

Alice Nachilembe

Alice Nachilembe is a Journalist who yearns for a better country with leaders being accountable to their mandate without oppressing the governed.