When it comes to gynecological cancers, your best defense is to be aware of your own body. The five most common types of cancer unique to women share some of the same symptoms. Knowing these symptoms – and regular screenings for cervical cancer — can help you catch cancer early when it is most treatable.
What are gynecological cancers and their symptoms?
There are five major types of gynecological cancer: Cervical, endometrial (uterine), ovarian, vaginal and vulvar. Of these, only cervical cancer can be screened for in its earliest stage. This is done with a PAP smear, and is why regular exams are so important. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can also be screened for – this is a sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cervical, vulvar or vaginal cancer.
The signs and symptoms of gynecological cancer are not always the same for all women. By being aware of what is normal for your body, you can sense when something feels off. If you experience any of the following symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor.
- Unusual discharge or vaginal bleeding is common in almost all gynecological cancers – see your doctor right away. Any bleeding after menopause should be reported to your doctor.
- Bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full too soon, and abdominal or back pain that lasts two weeks or longer is common with ovarian cancer
- Pelvic pain or pressure can be a sign of ovarian or uterine cancer
- Unusually frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or 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
How can you reduce your risk?
The best way to reduce your risk is to have regular exams with your women’s health provider and to be open with them about what is happening with you, including your sex life. Your gynecologist is your best ally in the battle against cancer.
The HPV vaccine is another important way to help prevent cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer. The CDC recommends the vaccine for everyone through age 26, and especially preteens aged 11 to 12 or as early as age 9 before infection with HPV is likely to occur. Some adults up to age 45 who have not already been vaccinated may also decide to get the vaccine – this is especially true if you are not in a mutually monogamous relationship, or you have started a new sexual relationship. Just keep in mind the HPV vaccine prevents new infections but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why it works best when given to preteens. But even with the HPV vaccine, it’s important to be screened for cervical cancer regularly.
Your doctor may recommend genetic counseling and testing if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. As part of the UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, The Medical Center at Bowling Green Cancer Treatment Center offers this service locally to women. Not all women need this, but it is still very important for your doctor to know your entire family health history, especially if you believe you are at risk for gynecological cancer.
Whether or not you think you might have cancer, regular visits with a gynecologist is one of the best things a woman can do to take charge of her health. If you are looking for a gynecologist, Med Center Health Women’s Health Specialists is accepting new patients. Call 270-781-0075 to schedule an appointment or learn more at MedCenterHealth.org.