When women have problems “below the belt” we are quick to attribute it to different things: soap, underwear or a wet bathing suit. While these may often be the causes of our discomfort, other times something more serious may be happening. September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness month and if there was ever time to talk to your gynecologist about something that has been bothering
you, that time is now.
Gynecologic cancer is the group name for the five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. As with any form of cancer, or disease in general, early detection is key and knowing the symptoms, causes and prevention techniques will keep you informed and healthy.
All women who have a cervix are at risk for cervical cancer and it mostly occurs in women over the age of 30. While almost all cervical cancers are linked to HPV, smoking, using birth control pills for a long time or giving birth to three or more children can increase your risk.
You can lower your chance of developing cervical cancer by protecting yourself from HPV (getting the HPV vaccine, using condoms, limiting your number of sexual partners), scheduling regular Pap tests with your doctor that search for cervical precancers and cancer, and not smoking.
If you have unusual discharge or bleeding, see a doctor. It may be a false alarm, but there is only one way to know for sure. Cervical cancer is the ONLY gynecologic cancer that can be prevented by having routine screening tests and following up so make sure you take advantage of that!
Women have two ovaries that make female hormones and produce eggs. When cancer begins here, it is called ovarian cancer. All women are at risk, but about 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40 and the greatest number of ovarian cancers happen in women aged 60 years or older.
You also have an increased risk if you: have close family members that have had ovarian cancer, have had breast, uterine or colorectal cancer, have an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish background, have never given birth or have trouble getting pregnant, or have endometriosis.
If you have abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area, back pain, bloating or a change in bathroom habits, see you doctor to discuss these changes. There is no effective screening test for ovarian cancer so it is very important to pay attention to your body and keep your doctor in the loop.
Most uterine cancers are found in women who are going through or have gone through menopause. If you have abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding or pain or pressure in your pelvis, see your doctor right away. Again, there may be other reasons for these changes, but as they say, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Your chances of developing uterine cancer are increased if you are older than 50, are obese, take estrogen by itself, have had trouble getting pregnant or take tamoxifen. You can lower your chances by using birth control pills, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight, taking progesterone if you are taking estrogen and checking in with your doctor about how often you should be checked for uterine cancer.
While vaginal cancer is very rare, all women are at risk, but when found early treatment is most effective. Signs and symptoms include vaginal discharge or bleeding, a change in bathroom habits (going to the bathroom more often than usual, feeling constipated, having blood in your urine or stool), pain in your pelvis or abdomen especially when you pee or have sex.
Smoking, having HPV, a history of abnormal Pap tests, or having HIV can increase your chance of developing vaginal cancer, but you can prevent it by not smoking, getting the HPV vaccine and limiting your number of sexual partners.
Vulvar cancer is very rare, but all women are at risk. The vulva is the outer part of your vagina. It has two folds of skin called the labia and vulvar cancer usually occurs on the inner edges of the labia. If you have itching, burning, bleeding on the vulva that does not go away, color changes on the skin of the vulva, skin changes (rash, warts, sores, new lumps or ulcers), or pain in your pelvis when you urinate or have sex, you should see your doctor right away.
You have an increased risk if you’re a smoker, have HPV, have a history of abnormal Pap tests, have HIV, are aged 50 years or older, or have chronic vulvar itching or burning. You can lower your chances of developing vulvar cancer by getting the HPV vaccine, limiting your number of sexual partners and not smoking.
This is a lot of information and if you have any questions or comments, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor and go over them. Having knowledge and being proactive are the best things you can do for your health. You only have one body, and if you don’t take care of it, who else will?