There are five different gynecologic cancers, and each is unique with different signs and symptoms. Since there is not a reliable screening test for most gynecologic cancers, knowing the signs and getting an annual exam are your best defenses.
Signs and Symptoms
Since some of the symptoms of gynecologic cancer can mimic other ailments, it’s best to know your own body and watch for symptoms that are out of the ordinary for you.
With ovarian cancer, which affects approximately 1 in 70 women, symptoms don’t set in until the disease is advanced. Symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain or pressure, abdominal or back pain, bloating and changes in bathroom habits. If you have these symptoms, see your GYN or family doctor right away for a physical pelvic exam, where the doctor will manually check your ovaries.
“Ovarian cancer is typically diagnosed from a pelvic exam. Physically feeling a mass is the main way we catch ovarian cancer because the symptoms are nonspecific and hard to identify,” said an OBGYN with The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic.
If anything is suspected, diagnostic tests, like ultrasounds, are ordered. During a physical exam, doctors also check for legions on the vagina—a possible sign of vaginal cancer.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge is a common sign across the board for most gynecologic cancers including cervical, ovarian, uterine and vaginal, leaving out only vulvar cancer. If you experience abnormal bleeding outside your cycle or after menopause, see your doctor.
Pelvic pain and pressure is another common sign and can indicate ovarian, uterine or vulvar cancer. Back pain along with bloating is unique to ovarian cancer.
Pap Test and HPV Vaccine
The one reliable screening test for gynecologic cancer is the Pap test to detect cervical cancer. It really does work, and should be on your to-do list at least every three years starting at age 21—or even more frequently if you have a family history.
Another way to protect yourself or your daughters is to screen for HPV and receive the vaccine. The human papillomavirus (HPV) has been associated with gynecologic cancers. Often, Pap tests and HPV screens go hand-in-hand—that’s because the Centers for Disease Control states that most cervical cancer is caused by HPV—nearly 70%.
HPV also causes some cancers of the vulva and vagina, and even penis cancer in men. The vaccine is most effective before becoming sexually active, and is recommended for all 11- or 12-year-olds, both boys and girls.
Early detection not only saves lives, it saves hassle, worry and expense. When caught early, pre-cancerous cells or lesions can often be removed at a clinic or with minor surgery rather than having to go to the hospital to receive a hysterectomy or cancer treatments.
“It’s important to have a yearly visit with a doctor. Annual GYN exams give doctors a chance to assess the health of your reproductive organs and check for risk factors,” concluded an OBGYN with TMH Medical Clinic.