Women and cancer


This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 21, 2022.

Historically, cancer affects women less frequently than men. The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer during her lifetime, while one in two men will receive the diagnosis. Women also tend to survive the disease more often than men.

Studies have found that these differences in incidence and outcome may be attributed to the fact that men are diagnosed with cancer more often in the first place, and to the fact that many of the lifestyle-related risk factors for cancer, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and eating fatty foods, have traditionally been more prevalent among men.

Whatever the cause, differences exist when it comes to men and women and cancer, and they often start with anatomy.

Female cancers

Some cancers only affect women because they develop in a woman’s reproductive system, which includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, vagina and vulva.

Gynecologic cancers include:

Although breast cancer is not a disease that only affects women, it is the most common cancer—after skin cancer—affecting women in the United States. The cancer is, in fact, 100 times more common in women than in men.

Risk factors and prevention

Several factors increase a woman’s risk of developing a gynecologic or breast cancer. Some of these factors include:

  • A family history of breast, ovarian or uterine cancer
  • Childbirth after age 30 of first child
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Radiation exposure, particularly at an early age
  • Genetic mutations (for example, BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • An unhealthy weight

Preventing gynecologic or breast cancers isn’t always possible, but taking measures like eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular physical activity may help.

Screening and diagnosis

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) accounts for around 34,000 cancers each year. HPV infection is usually linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva and vagina in women, but also to certain head and neck cancers. For this reason, most cervical cancer screenings today include Pap and HPV tests, and both girls and boys are encouraged to get the HPV vaccine starting at age 11.

Mammography is the most common screening tool for breast cancer, but women with a high risk of the disease may be screened using an MRI.

Diagnostic tools used for gynecologic and breast cancers often include:

  • Imaging tests, like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, PET scans and ultrasounds
  • Lab tests, like blood work and advanced genomic testing
  • Pelvic exams
  • Pap tests
  • Colposcopies
  • Biopsies

Learn more about diagnostic procedures

10 cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore

Women may not notice certain cancer symptoms, or may attribute them to other, less serious causes. But when these symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, they may be signs of cancer. Some of these often-ignored symptoms include:

  • Blood in the stool, which may be a sign of colorectal cancer
  • Changes in the skin around the breast, which can be a sign of breast cancer
  • Unusual bleeding, which may be a sign of a gynecologic cancer
  • Bloating, which may be a sign of ovarian or uterine cancer
  • Chronic coughing, which may be a sign of lung cancer or leukemia
  • Stomach pain or nausea, which may be a sign of leukemia or esophageal, liver, pancreatic or colon cancer
  • Unexplained weight loss, which may be a sign of leukemia, lymphoma or esophageal, pancreatic, liver or colorectal cancer
  • Skin changes, which may be a sign of skin cancer
  • Unexplained bruises, which may be a sign of leukemia
  • Frequent fevers or infection, which may be a sign of leukemia

Cancer side effects and women

Each woman’s experience with cancer and its treatments is different, but many treatments carry the risk of affecting a woman’s fertility. For example, surgery for a gynecologic cancer may harm reproductive tissues and cause scarring, and chemotherapy may affect the ovaries’ ability to release eggs and estrogen. Whether a woman’s fertility is affected by treatments generally depends on many factors, such as her age at the time of treatment, the length of treatment and her overall health. These issues should be discussed with her doctor.

Other side effects women commonly experience include:

  • Difficulties with sexual function, such as vaginal dryness and less energy for sex
  • Body image issues, whether from hair loss or scars from breast cancer surgery

Learn more about supportive care

Cancer treatments and women

Treatment for women with a gynecologic or breast cancer typically depends on many factors, such as the type and stage of the disease, the potential side effects, the woman’s overall health and age, and whether she plans on having children in the future. Surgery is often the first-line treatment for most gynecologic and breast cancers.

Other treatment options may include:

Reconstructive surgery either during or after breast cancer surgery may also be a treatment option for women with the disease.

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