Annual mammograms? Check. Routine Pap test? Check. Yearly doctor visits? You bet. To help stay as healthy as possible, you’re doing everything right. But there is one more simple thing you can do: Pay attention to your body.
The truth is that some female cancers don’t have screening tests. And there are times when the person most likely to know something is wrong isn’t your doctor—it’s you.
“It’s important for women to know what’s typical for them and their bodies,” says Connie Duke, R.N., OCN, director of Oncology Services at Beaufort Memorial.
“If something is worrying you, you should seek medical attention,” she says, stressing that it’s important to not panic. “It’s most likely not cancer, but if your symptoms are indicative of cancer, the sooner you seek treatment, the better.”
Here’s what you need to know about female cancers and their symptoms.
Ovarian cancer accounts for just three percent of cancers in women, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports. Still, it kills more women than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, and the mortality rate has not improved in 40 years. The organization estimates that in 2013, more than 22,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Risk increases with age and among women with a genetic predisposition. This is why you should let your doctor know if you have a family history of any type of cancer.
Symptoms to watch for include abdominal swelling or bloating, pelvic pressure, abdominal pain, difficulty eating, feeling full quickly and having to urinate urgently or frequently.
Although these symptoms are associated with ovarian cancer, they’re also associated with a lot of other noncancerous conditions. Consult your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms that aren’t normal for you.
Make sure you never miss your annual well-woman checkup. While most ovarian cancers will elude even an experienced OB-GYN, it is possible that your doctor might pick up on signs of cancer during a routine pelvic exam.
Cancer doesn’t often have a silver lining. But the good news about cervical cancer is that a Pap test can find it early—when it’s most likely to be treated successfully. The test can also identify precancerous cells, helping to prevent cervical cancer entirely.
In fact, the increased use of the Pap test is credited with a 70 percent decline in the cervical cancer death rate between 1955 and 1992, according to the ACS. For women who get regular Pap tests, cervical cancer is rare.
A symptom to watch for is abnormal vaginal bleeding. This might include bleeding after sex, between periods or after menopause, or having longer or heavier menstrual periods than usual. Other symptoms include pain during sex and vaginal discharge.
Like cervical cancer, breast cancer is most likely to be detected early with a screening. That’s why most experts recommend an annual mammogram starting at age 40. If you have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor might suggest you start screening sooner. About one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer. But thanks to screenings and other factors, death rates have been on the decline since 1989.
During a self-check, you might notice a lump in your breast, which is the most common symptom of breast cancer. But remember, most lumps are not cancer. Other signs can include swelling, skin irritation, pain in the breast or nipple, or nipple discharge.
Most uterine cancers start in the endometrium, which is the inner lining of the uterus. A woman’s average lifetime chance of being diagnosed with uterine cancer, or endometrial cancer, is about one in 37. Nearly 50,000 new cases of endometrial cancer were diagnosed in 2013, according to the ACS.
Age and hormone balance (affected by things like the length of your menstrual cycles, whether you had children and your age at the onset of menopause) contribute to a woman’s risk. In addition, women with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome) have a very high risk.
Signs to watch for: Most women (about 90 percent) with endometrial cancer report abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as a change in their periods, bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause. Some women may experience vaginal discharge without any blood and with pelvic pain. Other symptoms include a mass or unexplained weight loss.
At Beaufort Memorial Hospital, we’re focused on all aspects of women’s wellness. Click here for more information about our services and programs focused on women’s wellbeing.