Pay attention to symptoms that can point to gynecological cancer
A century ago, cervical cancer was the number one cause of cancer deaths for U.S. women. Fortunately, in the 1950s, when doctors began widely using Pap smears to detect cervical cancer, these rates fell drastically.
Pap tests identify precancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix. Since the human papillomavirus causes most cervical cancers, HPV tests and vaccines also are instrumental in reducing cases of cervical cancer.
Early detection of any cancer greatly improves the chances of effective treatment and a successful recovery. According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates have decreased by more than 50 percent over the past three decades, primarily because of screening.
What about other gynecological cancers?
Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman's reproductive organs:
- Cervical cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Overall, about 100,000 women per year are diagnosed with gynecological cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common gynecologic cancer is uterine, and the least common is vaginal.
Considering all cancer rates among women, gynecological cancers are uncommon. For women, the three most common cancers are breast, lung and colorectal, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Other gynecological cancer screenings?
Cervical cancer is the only gynecological cancer that can be identified with routine screenings. That means women should be aware of potential symptoms that could signal cancer.
In general, gynecological symptoms, according to the CDC, include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge except for vulvar cancer
- Feeling full too quickly, having trouble eating, bloating and having abdominal or back pain is typical for ovarian cancer
- Pelvic pain or pressure is common for ovarian and uterine cancers
- More frequent or urgent need to urinate and constipation are common for ovarian and vaginal cancers
- Itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva, and changes in vulva color or skin, such as a rash, sores, or warts, are found only in vulvar cancer
When should I see a provider if I'm concerned?
You know your body best. Trust your instincts if you feel something is "off."
Talk to your provider immediately if you have unusual vaginal bleeding, including vaginal bleeding after menopause. If you have not gone through menopause but notice that your periods are heavier and last longer than typical for you, or if you're having unusual bleeding between periods, talk to your doctor, advises the CDC.
For other symptoms, the CDC recommends that women see a doctor if they have warning signs that last for two weeks or longer and are not normal for them.
Can I do anything about my risk factors?
You cannot change many risk factors for gynecological cancers, such as age, ethnicity, genetics and a family history of cancers and menstrual issues. Having children, breastfeeding and using the birth control pill reduce the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer.
However, leading a healthier lifestyle can reduce the risk of all cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, about 40 percent of cancer cases and 45 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. could be attributed to risk factors that you can change.
For cervical cancer that includes:
- HPV vaccines
- Regular pap tests
- Using condoms
Although it may sound like a broken record, for gynecological and all cancers, you can reduce your risk by eating healthy, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking and exercising
If you have a family history of cancer, your doctor may recommend genetic testing to get additional information and ways to mitigate risk factors.
By: Lisa Marinelli Smith