September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month—making it an opportune time to highlight screening and prevention activities to lower your risk for developing cervical, ovarian, uterine, vulvar or vaginal cancer.
Get a vaccine, routine Pap exam
Of the five gynecologic cancers, cervical cancer is the only one with an effective screening test, and the only cancer that can be prevented with a vaccine. Cervical cancer is caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s a common virus, but most infections are cleared by the immune system without causing long-term problems. Occasionally, the virus will cause precancerous changes in the cells of the cervix, which over time can develop into cancer. A Pap test can detect these changes. In some situations, testing is done directly looking for HPV infection. The best things you can do to prevent cervical cancer are to get the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 26, and get regular Pap tests starting at age 21.
Pay attention to signs and symptoms
Ovarian cancer is the least common of the gynecologic cancers, but it the leading cause of death because it does not have a solid screening test. Your provider feels your ovaries during a pelvic exam, but most ovarian tumors are impossible to feel. And, early-stage ovarian cancer generally does not to present symptoms. If there are symptoms, they’re subtle or nonspecific, such as abdominal pain or bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, bladder symptoms or changes in bowel habits. Birth control pills can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Have a conversation with your doctor if you have any risk factors for ovarian cancer such as increasing age, family history of ovarian or breast cancer, or known gene mutations that may increase your likelihood to develop ovarian cancer. If you have notable risk factors, you may benefit from periodic testing or preventive surgery (removal of your ovaries).
Endometrial cancer develops in the lining of the uterus (endometrium). It is the most common type of gynecologic cancer, but again offers no screening test. However, unlike ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer usually has early symptoms such as abnormal uterine bleeding. For this reason, many endometrial cancers are diagnosed at an early stage. Any vaginal bleeding after menopause should be evaluated by your doctor—even spotting just once—as should any irregular or abnormal menstrual bleeding.
And finally, vulvar and vaginal cancers are the least common. Many are associated with HPV infection, and chronic inflammation of these areas can lead to cancer. Most vulvar cancers are diagnosed early, due to symptoms such as a lesion, ulcer, wart, or intense itching and irritation. Women with vaginal cancer may have symptoms such as vaginal bleeding, or it may be detected during a routine pelvic exam or on a Pap test.
Since most gynecologic cancers do not have screening tests, it is important to pay attention to your body and see a doctor if you have any concerning symptoms. Talk with your doctor about your individual risks and any symptoms you may be experiencing.