Protect Yourself Against Breast and Cervical Cancer

Being a woman puts you at risk for breast and cervical cancer. One of the best ways to protect yourself is by getting regular screening tests. These tests are designed to find problems early, before you have any symptoms. Problems are easier to treat at this early stage.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast start growing out of control. One in eight American women will have breast cancer at some point.

Things that increase your risk of getting breast cancer include:

  • Being age 50 or older

  • Having a mother, sister, or daughter who got breast cancer

  • Not being physically active

  • Being overweight after menopause

  • Drinking alcohol

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a new lump in your breast. Other possible signs include breast swelling, breast or nipple pain, skin changes, and nipple discharge. These symptoms can also be caused by things other than cancer. But they should be checked out. If you notice any such changes, see your health care provider without delay.

Don’t wait for symptoms, however. Getting regular mammograms (breast X-rays) helps you catch breast cancer even before the first symptoms appear. Ask your provider when you should start getting mammograms and how often you need one.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb). It usually starts as abnormal cell changes, called precancer. In some women, precancer eventually turns into the true cancer. More than 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.

Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). This very common virus can spread from person to person during sex. HPV usually causes no symptoms and often goes away on its own. But there is a chance it could lead to cervical cancer over time.

Advanced cervical cancer may cause unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina. If you develop such symptoms, see your health care provider right away.

Precancer and early-stage cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms, however. That’s why regular screening with a Pap test and/or HPV test is crucial. For these tests, your provider collects a few cells and mucus from your cervix. If precancer is found, treatment can prevent cancer from ever forming. Ask your health care provider when you are due for your next Pap or HPV test.