While you may be well versed with the routine Pap smear* that involves the slightly uncomfortable insertion of a metal speculum into your nether regions, there is likely a lot you don’t know when it comes to gynecological cancer. For instance, the Pap only tests for cervical cancer — there are four other entirely different types of cancers that can also affect your reproductive organs.
According to the American Cancer Society, there were an estimated 110,070 new cases diagnosed and approximately 32,120 deaths from gynecologic cancers in the United States in 2018. There are five primary types: cervical, ovarian, endometrial/uterine, vaginal and vulvar.
The majority of cervical cancer diagnoses are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, but most women with HPV will not develop cervical cancer. Regular screenings for abnormal cells in your cervix (known as the Pap) are still essential, as cervical cancer typically doesn’t show symptoms in its early stages. The good news is that this type of cancer can be prevented through early detection and treatment of any abnormal cell changes, in addition to the HPV vaccine.
Symptoms (in later stages) may include: Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding, pain during intercourse.
Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries and accounts for about 3% of cancers among females, though it causes more deaths than any other gynecological cancer due in part to symptoms being ignored or mistaken for other issues. Women who have had endometriosis or breast cancer or have a family history of ovarian, breast or colon cancer may be at higher risk. While there is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, using birth control pills, giving birth, or having a tubal ligation (tubes tied) or hysterectomy may lower your risk.
Symptoms may include: Abnormal abdominal bloating, abnormal vaginal discharge, abdominal pain or pressure, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly.
Sometimes known as endometrial cancer, uterine cancer develops in the uterus, and according to the CDC, it is the most commonly diagnosed gynecologic cancer in the U.S. and the fourth most common cancer in U.S. women overall. High-risk factors include being over the age of 50 and going through menopause, obesity, taking estrogen alone as a hormone replacement, and having a family history of uterine, ovarian or colon cancer. Using birth control pills, taking progesterone, and maintaining a healthy weight and activity level may help lower your risk.
Symptoms may include: Pain or pressure in your pelvis, abnormal vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding including a heavier-than-usual flow, post-menopausal bleeding, or bleeding in between periods.
In the rarest form of gynecologic cancer, an estimated 1,300 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer each year, which occurs in the vagina, also called the birth canal. Much like cervical cancer, vaginal cancer is often associated with HPV.
Symptoms may include: Abnormal vaginal bleeding, blood in the stool or urine, feeling constipated or having a frequent urgent need to urinate.
Approximately 4,900 women will be diagnosed with vulvar cancer each year, which affects the vulva, or the outer area of the female genitalia. Increased risk factors for vulvar cancer can include an HPV, HIV or cervical cancer diagnosis, smoking, or ongoing vulvar itching or burning.
Symptoms may include: Itching, burning, pain, or tenderness on the vulva that does not dissipate, changes in the vulva such as skin color, a rash, warts, sores, lumps, or ulcers.
The HPV vaccine can help protect against cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers — if you are between the ages of 9 and 45, you can receive it. Regardless of your age, speak with your doctor to find out if the vaccine can benefit you.
*While general guidelines suggest Pap smears every three years, we often recommend annual visits to BeachesOBGYN, as we are the primary care provider for many of our patients.
Contact Beaches OBGYN at (904) 241-9775 for more information or to schedule an appointment.