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Cancer prevention and screening for women

Cancers usually start with normal cells changing their genes so that they begin to grow abnormally. These cells can then move from where they originally started to somewhere else in the body (this is called metastasis).  

These gene changes are called mutations. They can occur for many reasons and happen all the time in the body, but usually our immune system finds these abnormal cells and destroys them. 

If the immune system is not working well or there are aspects of our lifestyle that increase the number of these mutations, then cancer is more likely to develop.  

 

When it comes to individual action, prevention is key. And the good news is, research shows that 1 in 3 cancers can be prevented by making changes to our lifestyle. 

Some of these changes include: 

  • Not smoking tobacco 
  • Doing regular physical activity 
  • Eating well and including a range of fruit and vegetables in your meals 
  • Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink 
  • Protecting yourself from the sun’s UV radiation by applying sunscreen 
  • Regular screening for common cancers 

Cancer screening programs

Screening means testing for disease when a person doesn’t have any symptoms. It’s different from diagnostic testing, which is used to confirm whether a person has a disease once they have symptoms. 

Screening is usually recommended when a person reaches a certain age. It is important because it can detect cancer at its very early stages – before a person starts feeling any symptoms. By finding cancer early, there is a better chance of effective treatment and higher likelihood of survival. 

There are three different screening programs available in Australia: breast, bowel, and cervical screening.  

Breast cancer screening

Breast Screen Australia offers breast screening to all Australians over 40 years of age. Their website provides lots of information on what the screening process involves, how you can make a booking, and why it’s important to be screened.

This video from the Breast Screen Australia website explores women’s experiences with having a breast screening and being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cervical screening

About 800 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia each year. Of these, about 70% were in women who have never been screened or were not up to date with their screening. The screening program tests for human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a common virus that can cause cervical cancer. It also checks for cervical cell abnormalities. 

The National Cervical Screening program is available to all people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 74. In the past, the test could only be done by a doctor – and you can still make an appointment with your GP or at a medical centre if this is your preference – but it’s now also possible to do a self-collection, at your doctor’s rooms.

However as the self-collection test kit only checks for HPV, if you have had treatment for precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix in the past you need to check with your doctor that the self test is okay for you. Most people who have had treatment can go back to the normal screening program after two clear follow up tests, but not everyone, and this is something your doctor can talk to you about. 

The cervical screening test is recommended to be done every five years. 

Below is a video from Jean Hailes that describes what it is like to have a cervical cancer screening.

Bowel cancer screening

The National Bowel Cancer Screening program offers Australians over age 50 free bowel screening every two years. Evidence shows that if bowel cancer is found early, more than 90% of cases can be successfully treated.  

The screening process is simple – the service mails a test kit to your home for you to use and mail back. Their website has lots of information, including handy videos on how to use the home test kit properly. 

Other types of cancer

Cancer Australia provides an easy-to-use interactive guide that can help with identifying common symptoms associated with different cancers.  

References

Cancer Council (no date) What is cancer? 

Collatuzzo G, Boffetta P. (2023) Cancers attributable to modifiable risk factors: a road map for prevention. Annual Review of Public Health. 44: 279-300. 

Firkins J, Hansen L, Driessnack M, Dieckmann N. (2020) Quality of life in "chronic" cancer survivors: a meta-analysis. Journal of Cancer Survivorship. 14: 504-517. 

Lisy K, Langdon L, Piper A, Jefford M. (2019) Identifying the most prevalent unmet needs of cancer survivors in Australia: a systematic review. Asia-Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology. 15(5): 68-78. 

Stein CJ, Colditz GC. (2004) Modifiable risk factors for cancer. British Journal of Cancer. 90(2): 299-303. 

World Health Organisation. (2022) Cancer - key facts 

Zamanian H, Amini-Tehrana M, Jalali Z, Daryaafzoon M, Ala S, Tabrizian S, et al. (2021) Perceived social support, coping strategies, anxiety and depression among women with breast cancer: evaluation of a mediation model. European Journal of Oncology Nursing. 50(101892).