I had a scare a few years ago when a mammogram screening was performed by a clinic that I hadn’t previously used. Several years before that, a cyst was discovered in my right breast that was determined to be benign, but the clinic that did the ultrasound on that cyst had closed and my records disappeared.
The current breast cancer screening center suggested a biopsy to ensure the cyst was not cancerous. It wasn’t, and now I have a marker implanted in that breast so future mammogram technicians and radiologists can track the cyst and its growth. My outcome was fortunate but, as a post-menopausal woman, I am still vigilant about scheduling mammograms and having regular physicals where my doctor can check manually for changes to my breasts.
I was interested in knowing if women going through menopause or those who are post-menopausal experienced high rates of cancer, so I did some research. First of all, menopause does not cause cancer. However, as we age, we are more prone to a variety of cancers. The inevitable weight gain associated with menopause, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and the timing of menopause may contribute to these cancers.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, women who experience late-onset menopause have an increased risk of uterine/endometrial and breast cancers, which is due to increased exposure to hormones such as estrogen. When women menstruate longer, they have more ovulations, running the risk of ovarian cancer. Periods starting before the age of 12 and the onset of menopause after age 55 have been shown to increase hormone-dependent cancers.
Research indicates that gaining weight after menopause also increases risk of breast cancer. Unfortunately, weight gain seems to be a byproduct of menopause — and I can attest to that!
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may increase ovarian cancer and breast cancer, but this can depend on how long a woman uses HRT and the dosage. Do not hesitate to speak with your doctor about HRT side effects and alternatives.
What to do? Eat a healthy diet (but don’t pass up a cookie or two if offered!) and exercise to maintain a healthy weight; don’t smoke; have regular mammograms, blood tests and cervical cancer screenings. You may wish to request a CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer (most insurance plans do not cover this test).
Though the medical establishment warns that the CA-125 test isn’t accurate enough in general (many non-cancerous conditions can increase the CA-125 level), I know of women who have died of ovarian cancer because it was diagnosed too late. This cancer initially presents symptoms that can be attributed to other disorders and is often not correctly diagnosed until it has advanced to a stage that is incurable. For my peace of mind, I am tested every year.
The threat of the “Big C” induces terror in all of us. My motto: don’t panic, be tested and screened regularly, and maintain healthy habits to mitigate the threat.