Everything You Need To Know About Common Cancer Screenings

A doctor breaks down breast, cervical and uterine cancer screening best practices.

A doctor prepares a woman for a mammogram

(Photo: iStock)

Cervical, uterine and breast are among the most common cancers in women and gender non-conforming people with breasts, uteruses and cervixes. One in eight Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, while an estimated 1,450 women will receive a cervical cancer diagnosis this year.

Chatelaine asked Dr. Christine Brezden-Masley, medical director of the Cancer Program at Sinai Health, how to mitigate your risk and navigate screening. Here’s what you need to know.

Breast cancer

Most women and people assigned female at birth between the ages of 50 and 60 should have a mammogram once every two years. “Be breast aware,” Brezden-Masley says. “If you feel a lump on your breast, see your family doctor.”

Screening varies by province. In Ontario, for instance, higher-risk patients—those between 30 and 69 years old with a family history of breast cancer or the BRCA gene, among other factors—can participate in screening programs for higher risk people, which include breast MRIs and ultrasounds and take place annually.

Limiting your alcohol intake, eating healthier and exercising are common steps anyone can take to help prevent development. “Our survival rate for breast cancer specifically has dramatically improved over the last two decades,” Brezden-Masley says. “A cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re going to die of cancer.”

Cervical cancer

The best prevention for cervical cancer comes from HPV vaccination. That’s because human papillomavirus, which is sexually transmitted, is the main risk factor for developing cervical cancer. (HPV can lead to other cancers, too.)

“If [people with cervixes] are sexually active,” says Brezden-Masley, “they can get the HPV vaccine.” Aside from full immunization, she also emphasizes the importance of protected sex and regular Pap smears.

Uterine cancer

According to UHN’s Gynecologic Oncology division, uterine cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women. It’s commonly referred to as endometrial cancer, and typical symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding and pain or difficulty urinating.

While there is no standard for screening endometrial cancers in the same way mammograms and Pap smears are used for breast and cervical cancers, early detection is key. Transvaginal ultrasounds are typically recommended if symptoms are present.

“There’s a huge amount of anxiety with any cancer diagnosis,” Brezden-Masley says. “Many [patients] are otherwise healthy, and some of them are younger; it certainly has huge implications in terms of their future.”

Ultimately, knowledge is power: Knowing what to look out for and what precautions to take can help alleviate some of that anxiety.

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