Your doctor has given you the lowdown on how to protect yourself against breast, colon, and lung cancer: Get yearly mammograms (check) and regular colonoscopies (check), and don't smoke (double check). But when was the last time she asked if you had any persistent mouth sores, unexplained fevers or joint pain, or discomfort during sex? These can be symptoms of three cancers — oral, leukemia, and endometrial — that don't get the attention they deserve. Even though they are among the most common cancers affecting women over age 55, these diseases can fall through the cracks as doctors focus on the biggest killers hogging the health headlines, says Elmer Huerta, MD, MPH, president of the American Cancer Society.
Read more for the facts behind these quiet dangers — and the simple ways you can protect yourself.
Your Risk: 1 in 98, with diagnoses peaking between the ages of 55 and 65. Oral cancer is lethal more often than it needs to be because people tend to ignore symptoms (it's typically caught in late stages).
Stay healthy: Watch your mouth: See a dentist or doctor about any sore in your mouth or on your lips that doesn't clear up in 2 weeks. A change in color or persistent pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in your mouth or on your lips should also prompt a fast visit.
Curb your vices: About 75% of oral cancers are caused by smoking and drinking alcohol. When such habits were considered unladylike, men with oral cancer outnumbered women 6 to 1, says Sol Silverman Jr., DDS, a professor of oral medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry. "But in the last 50 years, the incidence in women has soared — now the ratio is two men to every woman." Limit your intake to one drink per day.
Guard your lips: They need protection, too. Sunscreen isn't exactly tasty, so choose a balm with SPF and then apply your favorite gloss or lipstick.
The good news: Researchers at Ohio State University recently found that phytochemicals extracted from Hass avocados could kill or stop the growth of oral cancer cells. The study was done in test tubes, but there's no need to wait for confirmation — bring on the guacamole!
Your Risk: Many think of it as a children's disease, but the biggest jump in cases occurs between ages 55 and 74.
Stay healthy: Note any symptoms If you find yourself extremely pale or bruising easily, or if your gums bleed (more than is normal if you neglect to floss), it's time to get checked out. Extreme fatigue, unexplained fevers, and bone or joint pain are other common symptoms.
Avoid unnecessary scans: CT scans are a great diagnostic tool, but they deliver much more radiation than x-rays and may be overused, says Barton Kamen, MD, PhD, chief medical officer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In fact, researchers suggest that one-third of CT scans could be unnecessary. High doses of radiation can trigger leukemia, so make sure scans are not repeated if you see multiple doctors, and ask if another test, such as an ultrasound or MRI, could substitute.
The good news: The 5-year survival rate for all people with leukemia has more than tripled in recent decades, from about 14% in the 1960s to about 65% today. "New advancements now help us determine who is a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant and who might respond better to other therapies," says Kamen. "The result is more targeted treatment and better outcomes."
Endometrial (Uterine) Cancer
Your Risk: 1 in 40. This is the fourth most common type of cancer in women—90% of cases occur in women over age 50. You're more vulnerable if you're toting extra weight: Obese women are two to three times as likely to develop the disease. "Fat acts like another gland, which increases the levels of estrogen and other hormones in your system. That stimulates the growth of abnormal tissues," says Huerta.
Stay healthy: Mention any unusual bleeding More than 80% of endometrial cancers are found in the earliest, most treatable stages because this symptom tends to send women promptly to their doctors. If you notice any vaginal bleeding after menopause or bleeding between your periods, or if you experience pelvic pain, especially during intercourse, tell your doctor immediately.
Know your family history: "The same genetic mutation that puts people at increased risk of colon cancer also ups their odds of getting endometrial cancer," says Edward L. Trimble, MD, MPH, head of Gynecologic Cancer Therapeutics at the National Cancer Institute. If you have a parent or sibling with that disease, get screened yearly for endometrial cancer starting at 30.
Move more all day: In a recent report on more than 250,000 women, those who exercised several hours daily reduced their risk of endometrial cancer by up to 52%, probably because staying active reduces estrogen levels while helping you maintain a healthy weight. Exercise frequency mattered more than intensity — light housework, gardening, and walking are enough. Avoid iron: A Swedish study has found that taking iron supplements after menopause raises the risk of endometrial cancer by 70%. After age 50, the daily recommendation for iron drops from 18 mg per day to 8 mg, an amount easily obtained from food.
The good news: In the same study, calcium supplements halved endometrial cancer risk. (Researchers aren't sure why, but eating high-calcium dairy products didn't provide the same benefit.) Experts recommend that postmenopausal women consume up to 1,000 mg of calcium a day, and 1,200 mg after age 70.