Abnormal periods can be common for women both young and old – with the thought of “I’m just not on a regular cycle yet,” or “It must be menopause.” While an abnormal menstrual cycle can be an indicator of those events, it could also be a sign of a gynecologic cancer – the growth and spread of cancer cells in the female reproductive organs, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, vagina and vulva. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 71,500 new cases of gynecologic cancer are diagnosed nationwide each year with 26,500 deaths.
Warning signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers vary depending on type, but may include:
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
- Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding
- Frequent abdominal bloating or swelling
- A sore in the genital area that does not heal
While each gynecologic cancer has its own individual symptoms, a woman should have a general awareness of her body and know what is ‘normal’ for her. For instance, a pattern of menstrual cycles that may be unusually heavy, abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding after intercourse or frequent abdominal bloating may be cause to speak with your healthcare professional.
What else can you do? Keep in mind, each cancer also has its own unique risk factors, which could include genetic predisposition, obesity and advanced age. With that, arm yourself with information and take advantage of resources available. Know if you have a family history of gynecologic cancer – or any cancer – and share that knowledge with your doctor. Adopt a healthy lifestyle – eat nutritious foods in moderation and engage in physical activity.
And while there isn’t a screening test for all gynecologic cancers, consider the ones that do exist. Talk to your doctor about whether you are of an appropriate age for a Pap smear. This test can detect precancerous changes that occur in cells and can eventually become cervical cancer. While current guidelines recommend a woman receive the test every three years beginning at age 21, she should discuss a routine maintenance schedule with her doctor, as other factors may influence the frequency of the exam. The human papillomavirus (HPV) test screens for HPV infection, which could cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. In response to low vaccination rates, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey earlier this year joined the nation’s top cancer centers in calling for increased HPV vaccination.
While concerns regarding your gynecologic health may be a bit embarrassing to discuss with your doctor, be proactive and ask questions – it just may save your life.
Alexandre Buckley de Meritens, MD, is a gynecologic oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.