Women all over the world are at increased risk of developing breast and cervical cancers. A new study finds that, for reasons not yet understood, the incidence of these cancers is up in most countries, with the rise especially sharp in the developing world.
Jessica Denton was 34 years-old and pregnant when she felt a lump in her breast. Her doctors told her it was nothing.
"And they said if it grows during pregnancy, don't worry about it, everything does. And I didn't worry about it until I was five months through, and I couldn't ignore it anymore," she said.
It turned out she had a gene that increases the risk for breast cancer. In her second trimester, Denton had chemotherapy.
Cancer specialists like Doctor Jennifer Litton say women with this mutation are developing cancer six to eight years earlier than their female relatives with the same mutation did in the past.
"Is it just because of screening? Or is it truly something in the gene that's doing it?" Dr. Litton asks.
Perhaps more alarming: a new study from the University of Washington shows breast cancer cases more than doubled worldwide in the past 30 years, an increase not explained by population growth.
More than one and a half million cases were diagnosed in 2010. Cervical cancer is also rising, not as dramatically, but three quarters of the new cases last year involved women in low-income countries.
The study shows a huge difference in survival rates. In rich countries, women get screened. They have access to drug therapies and a vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer. The opposite is true for most women in poor countries.
"What we're seeing in poor countries, where there is limited access to screening and treatment, women are dying at younger and younger ages in these countries," said Dr. Alan Lopez, from the University of Queensland in Australia, who co-authored the study.
The study shows that 75 percent of all new cervical cancers occur in low-income developing countries.
Dr. Lopez says this is due in part to advances in health care. Fewer women are dying in childbirth and their daughters are surviving to become adults. As a result, there are more women who can develop these cancers. But the report doesn't answer the biggest question.
"Cancer throughout the world, particularly these two cancers, are increasingly a problem of younger women...women of reproductive age," explained Lopez. "For whom any death must be considered avoidable."
The study's authors want researchers and policymakers to build on these findings. Some governments are already working to make cancer screening and treatment more accessible to poor women. The Obama administration says it is committing $30 million for breast and cervical cancer prevention programs in developing countries.