September is recognized as Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. It offers a time to spread awareness about the types of gynecologic cancer and how they affect women across the globe.
Gynecologic cancers encompass all cancers of the female reproductive system, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus, vagina, and vulva. All women are at risk for these cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, uterine cancer is the most prevalent, followed by ovarian and cervical cancer. An estimated 90,000 women are diagnosed with some type of gynecologic cancer each year.
A combination of measures — including healthy lifestyle choices, early detection through regular exams and screenings, and vaccination against certain viruses — can help decrease the prevalence of gynecologic cancers, says Dr. Lachin Hajhosseini, a Family Medicine Physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Appleton North.
“Additionally, recent research is holding promise for improved survival rates and overall quality of life, especially when it comes to targeted therapies and immunotherapies. These aim to attack cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues,” she says.
Gynecologic Cancer Symptoms
Dr. Hajhosseini says women may experience a wide range of symptoms with the various types of gynecologic cancers.
Symptoms can include:
- Unexplained pelvic pain or pressure that doesn’t go away.
- Feeling too full, too fast, even when you eat just a little.
- Spotting between periods.
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, like having longer or heavier periods than what’s normal for you, or bleeding after you’ve gone through menopause.
“We want women to know their bodies so they can understand what is normal for them,” Dr. Hajhosseini says. “This is important so that women can recognize the potential symptoms of gynecologic cancer. If women notice anything unusual, and it persists, we encourage them to call their health care provider to talk through recommendations.”
Lifestyle factors and genetic predisposition can contribute to your risk for developing gynecologic cancers. Population demographics, access to health care, and public health initiatives play a significant role as well.
Making healthy lifestyle choices is a good place to start in reducing your risk of gynecologic cancers. This includes practicing safe sex and reducing your number of sexual partners. And like most other cancers: Avoid smoking, limit alcohol consumption, and maintain a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Regular gynecologic checkups play a critical role in the early detection of gynecologic cancers. These appointments usually involve screenings as well as vaccination against certain viruses. You and your provider should also discuss your family history of gynecologic cancers.
Several hereditary conditions can raise your chances of developing cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two of the most common are hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and Lynch syndrome. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you should talk to your provider about ways to reduce your risk.
“Early detection plays a pivotal role in the successful management of gynecologic cancers,” Dr. Hajhosseini says. “Discuss any concerns with a health care professional, and follow recommended screening guidelines to safeguard your health.”
Each type of gynecologic cancer has different types of preventive measures. Some include:
- Uterine cancer: Oral contraceptives, regular exercise, and hormone replacement therapy have shown to reduce the risk of this cancer.
- Ovarian cancer: Long-term use ofbirth control pills, multiple pregnancies and breastfeeding, and tubal ligation or hysterectomy (for women past their childbearing years) all have been associated with a reduced risk. Transvaginal ultrasound can be used for early detection. In addition, genetic testing is useful for women with a family history. This looks for inherited mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.
- Cervical cancer: Prevention measures include getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination and regular pap smears. These can lead to early detection of abnormal changes in the cervix.
- Vulvar cancer: Regular pelvic exams can help detect any abnormalities early. The HPV vaccination can also help in prevention.
“Through increased awareness, education, and access to medical resources, we can collectively strive to reduce gynecologic cancers,” Dr. Hajhosseini says. “Our goal is for you to feel empowered to have open conversations with your provider and to feel confident in taking charge of your health.”