Cancers that originate in the female reproductive organs — uterine, ovarian, cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers — are diagnosed in more than 70,000 American women each year. Annually, more than 26,000 women lose their lives to gynecologic cancers. Unfortunately for many women, the symptoms of these cancers are so silent cancers can grow undetected for years.
That’s one reason September now marks both National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. As more women understand the often silent or masked symptoms of gynecologic cancers, they’re more apt to take action and find cancer when it’s most treatable.
Gynecologic cancers do come with warning signs such as vaginal bleeding or bloating, but the symptoms are so ambiguous they’re easily dismissed. The best weapon is something most women have every year as part of their wellness checkup: a Pap smear.
The important annual test is a key reason we now have a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) and can finally prevent cervical cancer. “The Pap smear remains one of the best tests ever developed because really what it’s screening for is not cancers, but pre-cancers,” says Jill Whyte, M.D., a spokeswoman for the Society of Gynecologic Oncology.
Lower Your Risk
In addition to an annual Pap smear, here are other important ways you can help lower your risk of developing gynecologic cancers.
- Report your symptoms. Tell your doctor about abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain or pressure, abdominal or back pain, pain with intercourse, bloating, changes in bathroom habits, itching or burning of the vulva, and changes in vulva color or skin.
- Stop smoking, especially if you have HPV. The combination increases risk for vaginal cancer.
- Know your family history. BRCA genetic mutations can result in ovarian and breast cancer.
- Consider birth control pills. Ask your doctor whether they’re right for you to decrease risk for uterine and ovarian cancers.
- Manage your weight. Excess weight is a major contributor to uterine (endometrial) cancer, the most common gynecologic cancer.
If you missed your last GYN visit, make the call and schedule an appointment today. If you need a gynecologist, call Beaufort Memorial’s FREE physician referral line at 843-522-5585.