I check my breasts once a month for lumps and check my skin for changes in moles, but how do I check for other sorts of female cancers?
You’ve touched on a very important topic. Besides looking out for breast cancer, as well as melanoma and other skin cancers, we also need to keep a watchful eye on other parts of our body. This year 82,000 American women will be diagnosed with gynecologic cancer. Knowing the warning signs could mean spotting a problem early when there’s a better chance for cure.
Gynecologic cancer refers to any malignancy arising in a woman’s reproductive organs. The more common types are cancer of the uterus, cervix and ovary. Cancer of the Fallopian tube, vagina and vulva occur much less often. Each specific type of cancer has its own warning signs and risk factors, yet every woman is at risk. A woman’s odds of developing one of these cancers is 1 in 20.
Ovarian cancer is considered the most serious of the gynecologic cancers, by virtue of the high mortality rate. Risk increases with age and family history of ovarian cancer. On the flip side, a woman’s risk is lowered by things that break the cycle of ovulation such as pregnancy or using birth control pills. The warning signs for ovarian cancer include pressure or pain in the pelvis, a change in bowel or bladder habits that persists over time or worsens, frequent indigestion or abdominal bloating. These signs can be subtle and, hence, overlooked. One woman told me that she thought she was just gaining weight and that was why her pants didn’t fit.
The risk of uterine cancer also goes up with age, especially after menopause. Other risk factors include diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Since it usually begins in the endometrium, the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus, abnormal bleeding can be an early warning sign. Irregular vaginal bleeding before menopause and any bleeding after menopause need to be checked to rule out uterine cancer.
Today, many consider cervical cancer a preventable condition. That’s because regular screening with Pap smears can help spot a problem early, before it becomes cancer. So getting regular Pap smears is one way of lowering your risk. Things that increase a woman’s risk for cervical cancer include smoking, multiple sexual partners, infection with HPV or HIV, and early age of sexual debut (first intercourse). Bleeding after sex, excessive discharge, and bleeding between periods can occur with cervical cancer.
The warning signs of vulvar cancer include a sore that doesn’t heal or a new thickening or lump on the vulva or labia. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s painful or not. Often the only symptom is chronic itching. Vulvar cancer is more common among women over age 70, those with diabetes, and women who’ve had chronic itching or irritation of the vulva. One of my professors believed the real problem is the fingernail — that years of itching damages the tissues, increasing the risk of vulvar cancer.
Vaginal cancer is rare. It’s usually seen in elderly women who have abnormal vaginal bleeding. Cancer of the Fallopian tube is also very rare, and the risk factors and warning signs are similar to those for ovarian cancer.
The warning signs for gynecologic cancer can be subtle. Get regular checkups and be in tune with your body. You know your body better than anyone. If you find something that’s different, pay attention to it and get it checked out right away. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help lower your risk. Start by learning your family history, make healthy lifestyle choices — don’t smoke, get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
If you’d like to learn more about your personal risk of gynecologic cancer, talk to your doctor or visit the Foundation for Women’s Cancer at www.foundationforwomenscancer.org.
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