Women's Health

Women & Cancer

Women & Cancer

While the global cancer burden among women is substantial, there is also significant potential to reduce cancer risk, as a number of common cancers among females, have known means of reducing risk and / or early detection screening methods, which may lead to fewer women being diagnosed and / or improved treatment outcomes.

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CANSA places the focus on women reducing their cancer risk during October. However, we encourage women to make their health a priority all year round, by knowing what is normal for their bodies, and to be aware of the symptoms of cancer.

We urge all women, including cancer Survivors to encourage one another to adopt a balanced lifestyle and to go for regular screenings, in order to reduce their personal cancer risk, or the recurrence of cancer & to detect cancer early.

CANSA Mobile Health Clinics offer screening in remote areas…

Contact your local CANSA Care Centre for health awareness materials and to arrange for screening for breast, cervical or skin cancer, or ask about scheduled screening campaigns by our Mobile Health Clinics, if you live in a remote area.

Women are encouraged to join our Champions of Hope Facebook Group for cancer Survivors & chat to peers who are facing similar challenges.

Find general information regarding cancer, cancer types, treatment, support and risk reduction and information regarding female cancers prevalent in South Africa & other gynecologic cancers below.

Top Five Cancers Affecting SA Women:

The five leading types of cancer that indiscriminately afflict women in South Africa are:

Awareness of the symptoms, and early detection through screening, can help lead to earlier diagnosis, resulting in improved treatment outcomes. Awareness of risk factors, can help women reduce their personal cancer risk.

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Both breast and cervical cancer have been identified as a national priority with increasing incidences occurring.

Approximately 19.4 million women aged 15 years and older live at-risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer – the cancer affecting women in South Africa the most. In 2013, deaths from breast cancer and cancers of the female genital tract, accounted for 0.7% and 1% of all deaths in South African respectively.¹

¹Vorobiof D, Sitas F, Vorobiof G. Breast cancer incidence in South Africa. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2001 (September 15 Supplement); Vol 19, No. 18s: 125s -127s

1. Breast Cancer:

Apart from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women of all races, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 26 in South Africa, according to the 2012 National Cancer Registry (NCR).

Reduce Risk Through Regular Examinations:

Self Breast Examinations

Many breast lumps are harmless, but they should all be checked. Research has shown that a regular Breast Self-Examination (BSE), plays an important role in discovering breast cancer, compared to finding a breast lump by chance.

A BSE should be done once a month, preferably at the same time of day, following a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Many women have a pattern of lumpiness in their breasts which is normal. However, if you feel or see any change in your breasts or underarms, arrange for a Clinical Breast Examination at your local CANSA Care Centre or with your health practitioner.

Clinical Breast Examinations

A Clinical Breast Examination (CBE) is a visual and manual examination of the entire breast, from the collarbone to the bra line, and from the armpit to the breast bone. It is advisable to have a CBE as part of your annual medical check up.

Contact your local CANSA Care Centre or health practitioner to arrange for a Clinical Breast Examination.

You can also ask your Care Centre about Mobile Health Clinic visits scheduled in your community, especially if you live in a remote area.


Mammograms (a special x-ray to detect lumps in the breast), do not prevent breast cancer, but they can save lives by finding breast cancer as early as possible. Finding breast cancers early with mammography has also meant that many more women being treated for breast cancer are able to keep their breasts. When caught early, localised cancers can be removed without resorting to breast removal (mastectomy).

Women from the age of 40 should go for an annual mammogram, for purposes of non-symptomatic breast screening. Women 55 years and older, should have a mammogram every two years – or if they choose, continue with an annual mammogram. Women, who have other risk factors such as mutated BRCA1 /2 gene, should be referred for an annual mammogram. See CANSA Breast Cancer Position Statement (NCR 2012) regarding this.

◊ Many women and men overestimate their exposure to ionizing radiation from mammography. Read Fact Sheet Effective Radiation Received from Routine Mammography.


The MammaPrint test, made by Agendia, is a genomic test that analyses the activity of certain genes in early-stage breast cancer. Research suggests the MammaPrint Test may eventually be widely used to help make treatment decisions based on the cancer’s risk of coming back (recurrence) within 10 years after diagnosis. MammaPrint Testing can help some breast cancer patients avoid chemotherapy treatment – read MammaPrint Fact Sheet.

Only a licensed healthcare provider (i.e. surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, pathologist) can submit an order request for genomic testing.

Ask a licensed doctor to order the Agendia Breast Cancer Test Suite for breast cancer. Local Agendia Molecular Oncology Specialists can assist with the ordering process. From South Africa, one should contact Agendia Customer Service in The Netherlands at +31 20 462 1500, or alternatively contact customerservice@agendia.com

Agendia B.V., headquartered in Amsterdam in The Netherlands, provides innovative diagnostic testing for the treatment of cancer patients, which is based on gene expression analysis. For any enquiries, please email customerservices@gknowmix.com or phone 021- 9389324.

As long as a woman is in good health and expected to live longer than 10 years, all breast cancer screening should continue.

Warning Signs Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer – Symptoms and Risk Reduction:

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, please contact your local CANSA Care Centre so that our staff can help guide you through the public health care system and offer you and your loved ones care & support.

Enquire at your Care Centre re local CANSA Support Groups and read about our Phakamisa Navigation Programme to assisting ladies with breast cancer and raising awareness in communities.

CANSA also supports WAND (Women’s Achievement Network for Disability) in helping to reduce the risk of Breast Cancer in disabled women…

For inspiration please read the Buddies for Life online lifestyle publication for breast cancer Survivors.

Lymphoedema Management

Lymphoedema is a challenging complication of cancer surgery or radiation therapy and is called secondary lymphoedema (lymphoedema occurring at birth due to dysphasia is called primary oedema). It is a common side effect of treatment for women’s cancers, especially Breast Cancer.

It is the accumulation of fluid due to inactive or damaged lymph glands. Lymphoedema causes: Swelling of a body part and usually occurs in the arms or legs, but can also occur in the face, neck, abdomen or genitals. Read more: Lymphoedema Fact Sheet.

Our specially trained Lymphoedema Therapists offer Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) to manage the symptoms – contact your local CANSA Care Centre regarding treatment. Please note that not all Care Centres offer Lymphoedema treatment, but we will be able to assist with regards to referrals in this case.

2. Cervical Cancer:

Cervical cancer is the 2nd most common cancer among South African women. 1 in 39 women in South Africa will be diagnosed with cervical cancer (NCR 2012). It is curable if detected and treated in the early stages.

Reduce Risk Through Pap smears

Having regular Pap smears can detect abnormal cells in the cervix (lower part or mouth of the womb), that could develop into cervical cancer. Screening involves taking a swab of the cervical cells. It is uncomfortable, but painless.

When abnormal cells are identified and removed, in many cases it is prior to cancer cells actually developing. Early diagnosis and treatment of pre-cancerous lesions prevents up to 80% of cervical cancers, in high resource countries, where cervical cancer screening is routine.

Contact your local CANSA Care Centre to arrange for a Pap smear, or if you live in a remote area enquire about scheduled CANSA Mobile Health Clinic visits to your area. Your health practitioner can also assist you.

Who should have a Pap smear?

  • all women who have been sexually active, should start having Pap smears between ages 18 to 20 years
  • every eligible woman should preferably have a Pap smear at least every 3 years


  • It is better to have a Pap smear at a less optimal time, than not at all
  • Routine cervical screening is not required for women under the age of 18 years, even if they are sexually active
  • If a woman is 70 years old and, within the last 5 years, had two normal Pap Smears, she need not continue with Pap smears

Women making use of public sector screening services are entitled to three free Pap smears per lifetime, starting at the age of 30 years or older, with a 10 year interval between each smear. Find more information in CANSA’s Cervical Cancer Position Statement & Fact Sheet (NCR 2012).

If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, please contact your local CANSA Care Centre, so that our staff can help guide you through the public health care system and offer you and your loved ones care & support.

Reduce Risk Through Vaccinations

The primary underlying cause of cervical cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is transmitted through skin to skin contact and is a very common virus infecting most people at some point in their lives.

There are many types of HPV and some of the virus types can infect the cells that could lead to cancer. About 40 types are sexually transmitted through genital contact, while mostly two types (16 + 18) are considered high risk in South Africa.

High risk HPV is estimated to cause: 70% of cervical cancers; 50% of vaginal & vulvar cancers; and 20% of head & neck cancers.

CANSA supports the Department of Health’s HPV School Vaccination Programme to help reduce cervical cancer risk – read more…

Women who have had the vaccination should continue to be screened for cervical cancer.

Furthermore, CANSA advises delaying sexual debut; reducing the number of sexual partners, and increased condom use. Medical male circumcision helps to reduce HIV acquisition and transmission, and is protective for HPV in males, thus reducing the risk of initial or re-infection of HPV among women.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) & Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

Women living with HIV are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer and  experience more rapid progression of the disease.

Cervical cancer – Symptoms and Risk Reduction:

3. Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer or colon cancer is the 3rd most common cancer affecting women in SA – 1 in 135 females are at risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer (NCR 2012). CANSA continues to appeal to women to get to know their bodies and start looking out for any telling signs and symptoms that may indicate colorectal cancer.

Most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp, a small growth of tissue that starts in the lining & grows into the centre of the colon or rectum. Doctors can remove polyps during the colonoscopy procedure.

A change in bowel habits (diarrhoea/constipation), rectal bleeding or blood in stools, and persistent abdominal discomfort (cramps, gas or pain), are among some of the warning symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Risk factors include: a family history of colorectal cancer; colorectal polyps, consumption of red & processed meats; low fruit & veg intake; low-fibre & high-fat diet; excess body weight; alcohol consumption; insufficient intake of clean, safe water; smoking and physical inactivity.

CANSA advises living a balanced lifestyle to reduce risk of colorectal cancer, and to go for regular colon screening tests such as a colonoscopy, as from the age of 50, every 10 years.

Some CANSA Care Centres | Mobile Health Clinics offer faecal occult blood tests (a sample of stool is collected on the end of an applicator to help detect small quantities of blood). Positive results, although not always an indication of cancer, require a referral to a medical health practitioner.

4. Uterine Cancer

Cancer of the uterus, also known as endometrial cancer or uterine cancer is the 4th most common cancer affecting women, occurring in the tissue of the endometrium, which is the lining of the uterus. 1 in 147 women are at risk for being diagnosed with uterine cancer (NCR 2012).

CANSA advises that should any of the following warning signs appear, they should be investigated further by a medical practitioner: abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge; and pain in the pelvis or abdomen, especially when urinating or during sexual intercourse. Early detection is key and leads to better treatment outcomes.

Risk factors include: genetics & family history; inability to fall pregnant; infrequent menstrual cycle or menses starting before the age of 12; oestrogen replacement therapy without the use of progesterone; age; obesity; lack of exercise; smoking; and alcohol use.

5. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer occupies the position of 5th most common cancer affecting women in SA. Statistics reveal that the more a person smokes, the greater the risk of developing lung cancer. It’s also more likely to develop in people who start smoking at a young age.

However, if someone stops smoking, the risk of developing lung cancer falls dramatically and after approximately 15 years, the chance of developing the disease is similar to that of a non-smoker.

Other Gynecologic Cancers:

Gynecologic cancer is an uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells that originate from the reproductive organs.

Related Issues:

Read online lifestyle publication for cancer Survivors, “Buddies for Life” and “Oncology Buddies”.

How Women can Reduce their Cancer Risk:

Be aware of the importance of the early detection of cancer. This enables more effective treatment and a better chance of recovery.

Acknowledge the importance of:

We also encourage women to reduce their risk of female cancers by: Avoiding hormone therapy | using condoms to help prevent sexually transmitted infections such as the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is a high risk factor for cervical cancer | consulting a healthcare professional on the HPV vaccine | consulting a healthcare professional for advice on appropriate screening tests if there is a family history of cancer.

Hair Matters: Henna Tattoos, Hair Dye, Scalp Cooling

It is known that cancer and its treatment can weaken the body’s immune system, because it affects the blood cells that protect one’s body against disease and germs.

As a result cancer Survivors have a compromised immune system and their bodies cannot fight infection, foreign substances, allergies, and disease as well as a healthy person’s body can (American Cancer Society).

Any product like henna skin dyes that have the potential to cause any form of infection, irritation and /or allergic reaction, should be totally avoided by individuals diagnosed with cancer, those undergoing cancer treatment, as well as cancer Survivors.

Other Matters:

Has Cancer Touched Your Life?

Cancer affects one in four South Africans, through diagnosis of family, friends, colleagues or self.

We want you to know that you are not alone and that we would like to support you and your loved ones, regardless of how cancer has touched your life.

Find info & online resources to help you fight cancer and please read more about CANSA’s Holistic Care & Support which is offered at our CANSA Care Centres countrywide.


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