In the world of cancer, gynecological cancers tend to be a bit more complicated and less understood by the general public.
Gynecologic cancers are cancers of a woman’s reproductive organs – ovaries, uterus, cervix, vagina, vulva, and in rare cases, fallopian tubes. Though these cancers all affect the female reproductive tract, they all have unique warning signs, symptoms and treatments.
According to the American Cancer Society, each year nearly 100,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cancers of the female reproductive organs. Nearly a third of those diagnosed with a type of gynecologic cancer will die.
Of the six types of gynecological cancer, only cervical cancer has a reliable screening test – the Pap and/or high risk HPV DNA testing – explaining why the survival rate for these cancers is so low.
Without effective screenings, gynecological cancers can be difficult to detect early, when they’re most treatable and contained.
This is why it is especially important to be aware of the early warning signs as well as your personal risk factors.
Each gynecological cancer has its own unique symptoms and warning signs, but the primary indicators to be aware of are:
Vaginal bleeding or discharge
Pain in the pelvis, abdomen and/or back
Abrupt changes in bathroom behavior
Vaginal itching or burning
Physical changes to the vulva and vagina such as rash, sores or warts
If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, see your doctor immediately. Recognizing these warning signs is the best way to catch gynecological cancer early.
Understanding your risk factors can get complicated, so it’s best to speak with your doctor if you have any concerns. Some risk factors to think about include:
Lifestyle. For example, smoking has been shown to increase a woman’s risk for cervical cancer, while obesity and estrogen supplements have been linked to uterine cancer.
Age. For instance, cervical cancer is far more prominent in women over 30, while the majority of uterine cancer cases occur in women over 50. Ovarian cancer is more prominent in women over age 60 and vulvar cancer tends to occur more commonly in women in their 70s and 80s.
Family history. A woman’s risk for ovarian cancer increases if she has a close family member (mother, sister, grandmother, aunt) who has/had the disease. Being of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish descent, or having tested positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA1 gene mutation, similarly raises a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.
Birth history. Having three or more children can increase a woman’s risk for cervical cancer, while never giving birth increases a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.
In addition to knowing the symptoms and risk factors of gynecological cancers, the HPV vaccine is another tool women can use to help prevent certain gynecological cancers. HPV, which stands for the human papillomavirus, is a common sexually transmitted disease (around 50 percent of sexually active people will have HPV at some point) that has been linked to cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer. While typically recommended for girls, and now boys, at around 10 years old, it can also be given to adults into their mid-20s.
With September being National Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to learn all you can about gynecological cancer.
That is why we at Columbia St. Mary’s are excited about seeing you at our upcoming “A Healthy Night Out.”
This event is aimed at empowering you by engaging you in discussions on topics related to gynecologic and breast health. You will have a unique opportunity to listen to and meet with some of Columbia St. Mary’s top experts in the areas of gynecological and breast oncology.
“A Healthy Night Out” takes place on Thursday, September 18, from 6-8 p.m. at the Radisson North Shore (7065 N. Port Washington Rd.). It promises to be a fun and informative evening for all women. Though this event is free and open to the public, advance registration is required. To register, call 414-963-WELL.