Every woman experiences menopause. It notifies when the menstrual cycles cease and the woman’s body undergoes physical, hormonal, and emotional changes. It is a gradual process and has three phases:
Perimenopause: It is the preparatory age wherein the reproductive capabilities slow down, and menopausal symptoms begin to appear. It generally commences a few years before menopause.
Menopause: Menopause is diagnosed when the woman misses her periods for 12 months consecutively. By the time of menopause, estrogen levels decline.
Post menopause: During this stage, menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, get milder or disappear. However, certain other symptoms like vaginal dryness may appear in the postmenopause stage. Women are also at an increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease in this phase.
Menopause and Cancer
Cervical and breast cancers are the two most commonly occurring cancers in women. Research has revealed that though menopause does not cause cancer, these cancers are common around the time of menopause. A woman who experiences a late menopause, after age 55, has an increased risk of ovarian, breast, and uterine cancers. The risk is also greater if a woman starts menstruating before age 12. The risk of breast cancer is more in women whose mother or maternal aunt or maternal grandmother has had a history of breast cancer. It is only seen that women taking oral contraceptives for a longer duration are at a higher risk of breast cancer.
The risk of cervical cancer is more in women with infections by the human papilloma virus, multiple sexual partners, more number of children and also smoking.
Signs and symptoms: Cervical cancer may cause abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, as also bleeding after sex. In the case of breast cancer, the symptoms differ from individual to individual, and may exhibit no symptoms at all. Some warning signs of breast cancer are
New lump in the breast or armpit.
Thickening or swelling at any part of the breast.
Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast.
Nipple pulling in or pain in the nipple area.
Nipple discharge other than breast milk, like blood.
Any change in the size or shape of the breast.
Pain in any area of the breast.
If you have any of these signs, see your doctor.
HRT and Cancer
Hormone Replacement Therapy – Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is prescribed to treat menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness etc. It is a common myth that this hormone replacement therapy causes cancer. While HRT does not directly cause cancer, it may cause an already existing cancerous lesion in the breast to grow faster. HRT is also not recommended in women who have genital cancers or a history of genital cancer in them or their close relatives.
Cancer Screening Recommendations for Midlife Women
Since cancer risk is already known, screening is crucial for menopausal women. These are the recommendations for screening of breast cancer:
Self breast examination
Average-risk women should receive a mammogram starting at age 40 and no later than 50.
They should have a screening mammogram every one or two years.
And should continue mammography screening until at least age 75.
For cervical cancer screening
Average-risk women should receive a Pap with or without a human papillomavirus (HPV) testing starting at age 21 (or after they start having sexual intercourse).
They should repeat these tests every three to five years.
If a woman gets three negative Pap smear tests within the past ten years, they can discontinue testing after age 65.
Ways to reduce the Risks of Developing Cancer-
Self breast examination is a simple and effective way of recognising early signs of breast cancer.
Exercise regularly. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Physical activity may lower the risk of several cancers, including breast and endometrium.
Maintain a healthy weight. Avoid overweight/obesity.
Limit alcohol. Excessive drinking increases the risk of breast cancer. Women should have no more than one drink a day.
Eat healthily. Include at least 2½ cups of fruits and veggies a day.
Practice safe sex. Use condoms during sexual intercourse and limit the number of sexual partners.
So, the bottom line is that menopause may be indirectly associated with an increased risk of breast and cervical cancer, but it is not the only reason for it. Women in this population must be vigilant about any changes in their bodies and daily routine and seek medical advice at the earliest.