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Ladykillers

A closer look at the cancers that plague only women.

By Adrienne Dy, M.D.

MAY 2013

They’re stealthy, sneaky and often take us by surprise. Experts at biological warfare and genetic manipulation, they invade and infiltrate, weakening us from within, sapping strength and seizing control of our lives. Worst of all, they only target women.

We’re talking about cancers—specifically those that afflict women alone. While we who possess the XX chromosomes have exclusive advantages—pregnancy, princess treatment and the perks we get with our feminine charms—we also have exclusive afflictions. Cancer is one aspect that highlights this somber truth.

Women only

It all begins with the unmistakable anatomy of women. Call it the curse of curves—both bosom and hips house the organs that are most affected when it comes to cancer in women. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in females, breast and cervical cancer are among the leading causes of cancer deaths. Translating that into numbers, the latest Globocan statistics reveal that breast cancer is the top female cancer in the Philippines, affecting over 11,500 new patients per 100,000 women, and killing about a third of them. Cervical cancer ranks second, with over 4,500 victims per 100,000 women, claiming the lives of 40 percent of them. Ovarian cancer is also in the top five.

More than mere anatomy, however, is the hormone factor. Many breast cancers are estrogen-sensitive, while some studies have implicated long-term hormonal therapy with estrogen in the development of ovarian cancer. Moreover, risk factors for these malignancies include circumstances surrounding the reproductive system of women.

Profile of a ladykiller

Just like every woman has a distinct personality, so do female cancers. They say you should know thy enemy, so here’s a look at the nuances of these ladykillers.






Ladykillers 2

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PERPETRATOR   MODUS OPERANDI   DISTINGUISHING MARKS   DANGER LEVEL

Breast Cancer
 
Invades the milk ducts or breast tissue
 
Commonly requires a sidekick—the hormone estrogen

 
Attacks one in eight women; may also attack men
Cervical Cancer   Using the human papilloma virus or HPV, it attacks the cervix, or the lower part of the womb
  Gives off a distinct, rotting odor during the advanced stage of the disease
  Worldwide, the third most common type of cancer in women

Ovarian Cancer
 
Infiltrates the ovaries, which house the eggs of women and produce female hormones
 
Insidious onset – symptoms are felt late when the cancer has grown significantly
 
The U.S. Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results estimates that over 22,000 women were diagnosed with and 15,500 of them died of ovarian cancer last year.

Endometrial Cancer
 
Assaults the lining of the uterus or womb. Also goes by the alias “uterine cancer.”
 
Most types produce mucus and other fluids.

May begin as endometrial hyperplasia—a benign overgrowth in the lining of the uterus.
 
Most types produce mucus and other fluids.
May begin as endometrial hyperplasia—a benign overgrowth in the lining of the uterus.


Diffusing the C-bomb

So we know what they look like. Question is, can we stop them?

There are too many factors involved when it comes to a disease as complicated as cancer. But there are steps we can take to mitigate the problem and minimize its occurrence. We can start by exploiting these cancers’ vulnerabilities.

Ang Peng Tiam, M.D., senior consultant of medical oncology and medical director of Parkway Cancer Centre in Singapore, strongly believes that prevention is an important aspect of cancer care. “We must really try and see what more we can do to prevent patients from getting cancer, because by the time you get cancer … you’re already fighting a losing battle. It’s like, let’s not wait for the terrorists to bomb the city before taking action. … [F]ind the terrorists and destroy them before the city is attacked,” he illustrates.

Dr. Ang stresses that we should take advantage of the fact that there are some cancers that can be treated before it becomes a full-blown disease—including cervical cancer. For this, he encourages women to go for Pap smears or the Papanicolaou test: a procedure that involves getting and examining a swab sample of mucus from the cervix. If abnormal and possibly precancerous cells are found, action can be taken before cancer truly sets in. Yet not many women take advantage of this. Dr. Ang laments, “It is not expensive, it’s a little bit uncomfortable, but why is it that the pickup rate is so very low?” He recommends that as soon as a woman becomes sexually active, she should go for a pap smear once a year. “Even if you do it once in two years, we will still be able to [do something] before it becomes a serious problem,” says the oncologist.

Another readily available weapon against cancer is early detection. “This is where the mammogram comes in,” says Dr. Ang. “Mammography has been shown to detect breast cancer early. And we do know that if you detect breast cancer early, the higher are your chances of cure.” He says the recommendation is for women to get it annually, starting at the age of 40.

Depending on the individual’s risk factors, other screening tests including blood tests for tumor markers and pelvic ultrasound, and precautionary measures like taking medications or undergoing the prophylactic removal of the uterus, can be recommended by a doctor.

Find out more about the targets of these ladykillers, their vulnerabilities that we can exploit, and how we’re faring in the fight against them in the May issue of HealthToday.



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