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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 16:51 GMT
Can women avoid cancer?
Daniel Sandford
By BBC Health Correspondent Daniel Sandford

This week it is ovarian cancer. Only ten days ago it was breast cancer.

Cancer among women is on the rise. Partly this can be explained by the ageing population. Women are living longer, so there is more chance of them getting cancer.

It is hard to avoid the fact that there are also lifestyle factors involved

The breast cancer screening programme is also picking up more cases of the disease.

All the same, it is hard to avoid the fact that there are also lifestyle factors involved. Something we are doing in our lives means that certain cancers are increasing.


For women, the rise appears to be at least in part linked to childbirth.

Scientists think some of the increase in breast cancer can be explained by the fact that women are having children later in life. They also think the rise in ovarian cancer can be linked to women having fewer children, and breastfeeding less.

The Daily Mail loved it. "Breast Cancer Risk to Career Women", the headline screamed, "Career women were warned last night that delaying motherhood could increase the risk of breast cancer."

Is the answer for women to return to housewifery and the mass childbirth of the Victorian era?

So is the answer for women to return to housewifery and the mass childbirth of the Victorian era? Of course not. All these things need to be taken as part of a larger picture.

Having more children earlier, and breastfeeding them for longer, may reduce your risk of certain cancers.

But it increases your risk of all sorts of serious child-related complications, and also things like boredom, isolation and depression.

No right answer

There is no right or wrong answer to these things. It is good for women to know the way science is going, but it is easy for people to use these kind of statistics to support their own moral and political opinions.

For example on ovarian cancer the picture is far from clear. Having less children seems to increase your risk, but using the contraceptive pill reduces your risk.

As far as I know it is not possible to take the contraceptive pill and have lots of children all at the same time!

It is probably better for women just to bear these findings in mind when making decisions about when to have children. But there are probably better ways of avoiding a nasty brush with cancer.

Doctors will tell you the same things over and over again. Stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, take exercise, go for cervical and breast screening, and as far as possible avoid stress.

It may be that giving up reading the Daily Mail would help too.

See also:

15 Nov 01 | Health
Ovarian cancer rates soar
05 Nov 01 | Health
Breast 'most common cancer'
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