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These are the main cancers that affect young women – and the symptoms to look out for

Cancer is never an easy subject to talk about. But it's an important conversation to have. Breast cancer accounts for almost a third of all cancers in women. That statistic never fails to shock no matter how many times we see the figures. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which aims to reduce preventable cancer deaths by raising awareness of symptoms and improving education. It's also a time to flag the other most common cancers in women as people diagnosed at an early stage have a much higher chance of successful treatment.

Remember, too, that you should never feel embarrassed about your symptoms and, above all, don't ignore them no matter how scared you may feel. It's true that sometimes other health issues may cause similar effects, but knowing your symptoms and feeling empowered to act on them as quickly as possible could make all the difference.

We consulted Dr Tim Crook, a leading consultant medical oncologist in London, who has over 22 years experience, to find out more about how you can check your body for signs of specific cancers.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer for women in the UK. Around 10,000 women under the age of 50 receive a diagnoses every year and, according to Cancer Research UK, one in seven women in the UK will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.

“If you have a first degree relative (mum, sister, daughter) who has had breast cancer, this doubles your risk – hence the importance of family history in patients presenting with breast symptoms,” says Dr Crook. “This risk also increases if your relative had breast cancer below the age of 50." The prevalence of breast cancer in a family may be due to changes in a gene that normally has a protective effect against breast cancer. “There are at least 14 genes (including the well-known BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes) in which changes may increase breast cancer risk,” Dr Crook says. "These can be tested for in a blood or saliva test and the risk determined.”

90% of cases of breast cancer are, however, not hereditary. “The female sex hormone oestrogen drives proliferation of breast cancer in 70% of cases,” adds Dr Crook.

Despite this, a large number of women don't check their breasts regularly. According to breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! only 36% of women aged between 18 to 35 check their breasts every month. But even if you have mammograms it's important to check between your appointments.

Symptoms to look out for:

Breast cancer symptoms aren't always a lump. CoppaFeel! recommends checking your breasts at least once a month for changes in skin texture, nipple discharge, swelling in your armpit or around the collarbone, a sudden change in the size or shape of your breast and a rash on or around your nipple. If you're unsure exactly how to check your boobs, our guide to doing a breast cancer check at home should help. Unusual changes in your breast should be checked out with a GP as soon as possible.

That advice is especially important in the current climate. “A drop in breast cancer screening at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have resulted in fewer early-stage and more late-stage breast cancer diagnoses,” says Dr Crook.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer for women. Studies by Cancer Research UK reveal that one in 15 UK females will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime. That said, 79% of cases are preventable with almost three quarters (72%) caused by smoking. But a recent study has also found that women between the ages of 30 to 49, who are non smokers, have a higher rate of lung cancer than men of the same age. “Adenocarcinoma is the most frequently occurring lung cancer in non-smokers and is also more common in younger women,” explains Dr Crook, who adds that more research is needed to understand why.

Symptoms to look out for:

“Lung cancer often goes undiagnosed because it doesn’t produce many symptoms in early-stage disease,” says Dr Crook. “It is only when the disease becomes more advanced that the signs become evident.” According to Dr Crook, these may include “a persistent new cough that won’t settle, coughing up blood, chest pain, feeling short of breath, a persistent hoarse voice, unexplained fatigue and weight loss.”

Bowel cancer

Breast, lung and bowel cancers together account for over half of all new cancer cases and bowel cancer is the third most common cancer found in UK women.

Bowel cancers affects the large bowel (also known as the large intestine) and is made up of your colon and rectum. Bowel Cancer UK is quick to point out that while bowel cancer is more prevalent in the over 50s, it can affect people of all ages, with more than 2,600 new cases diagnosed each year in those under the age of 50. Dame Deborah James (aka the Bowel Babe) was only 35 years old when she was diagnosed.

Symptoms to look out for:

The symptoms of bowel cancer that Deborah wanted everyone to be aware of include a change in your bowel habits (constipation and diarrhoea), bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo, unexplained weight loss and a pain or lump in your tummy.

As well as checking your poo,“keeping a diary of symptoms before seeing your GP increases the probability that you will be promptly referred to secondary care for investigations,” says Dr Crook.

Melanoma skin cancer

Melanoma skin cancer is another common cancer for women. According to Cancer Research UK, since the early '90s, the rate of women being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer have doubled. Young women up to the age of 24 account for the greatest increase in those diagnosed with melanoma. Now 50% of total cases are in females and 86% are preventable.

Symptoms to look out for:

Dr Crook advises people frequently check their skin for irregularities, which could be a sign of early skin cancer. “The classic signs that you should look out for are a change in the size or appearance of an existing mole,” he says. “If it's getting bigger, bleeding, itching or changing shape and colour, these signs should be reported to your GP right away.”

Shielding against UV rays is the main way to protect against melanoma. Sun beds should be avoided at all costs as a single tanning session substantially increases your risk of melanoma. “Also limit your exposure to the sun by loading up on sunscreen and be particularly careful with young children's skin as sun exposure early in life is a risk factor for the later development of melanoma," stresses Dr Crook.

Also important…

Even though three quarters of cases of womb cancer, also known as uterine cancer, are in women aged 40 to 74, it's worth noting that the most common symptom of womb cancer is abnormal bleeding from the vagina. If you notice a change that isn't normal for you, see your GP.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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