This year in the United States, more than 122,000 women will be diagnosed with a form of gynecologic cancer.
That’s a number that has increased from more than 98,000 in 2015, according to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, and one that has medical professionals encouraging women to learn the signs and symptoms of such cancers so they can recognize the warning signs early and seek medical care.
“While they are most common later in life, women of any age can be affected by gynecologic cancer,” said Dr. Elizabeth Connor, Billings Clinic gynecology oncologist. “Unfortunately, while they may not be the most common types of cancer, they can be some of the deadliest.”
Gynecologic cancers are those that affect a woman’s reproductive organs. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, all women are at risk and that risk increases with age.
However, women of any age can lower the risk of these cancers by learning about the most common types of gynecologic cancer, and how to recognize some of the signs and symptoms early on.
Ovarian – This form of cancer develops in a woman’s ovaries, fallopian tubes, or lining of the pelvis and is responsible for more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer. Signs to watch out for are pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, bloating and/or increased frequency and urgency of urination. If you experience these symptoms more days than not over the course of a month, you should get checked.
“About 1.5 percent of women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in their lifetime,” Connor said. “The symptoms can be very non-specific so it’s important to see your doctor if you notice any changes.”
Uterine/endometrial – These cancers develop in a woman’s uterus, often in the lining (endometrium). Risk factors include obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and a history of irregular periods. The most common symptom is either a change in usual vaginal bleeding or vaginal bleeding after menopause. Other symptoms such as increased discharge or pressure in your pelvis should be evaluated as well.
Cervical – Cervical cancer develops in a woman’s cervix and is highly preventable thanks to screening tests. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine also has been shown to decrease rates of cervical cancer and pre-cancer. Early detection of cervical cancer is important and improves survival. The vaccine should ideally be administered prior to sexual activity, and is approved for boys and girls aged 9-26, and recently gained FDA approval for adults up to age 45. Other ways to decrease the risk include regular Pap and HPV tests and avoiding smoking. Signs of this cancer can include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
“The vaccines really are effective in helping to prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer,” Connor said. “They were previously approved up to 26 years of age but recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it through the age of 45, and that opens it up to more people. If you have not received the HPV vaccine, discuss with your doctor if this may be helpful to you”
Vaginal – Risk factors for vaginal cancers include infection with the HPV virus, prior abnormal pap smears, smoking, an HIV positive diagnosis, conditions that suppress the immune system and being over the age of 50. While vaginal cancers don’t always show early signs, they can include abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding, an unexplained change in bathroom habits and pelvic pain.
Vulvar – Cancer of the vulva (the outside skin) have symptoms including chronic itching, skin discoloration, bumps or lumps, pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding or discharge and open sores, ulcers or cauliflower-like growths. Vulvar cancers are one of the many reasons that regular pelvic exams are important as they can often be caught early if checked. If you have any of these symptoms, you should have a pelvic exam.
Additionally, any women who experience vaginal bleeding or discharge after menopause should be checked.
With any cancer, experts say to pay attention to what your body is saying. If something is out of the ordinary or doesn’t seem right, make an appointment and see a doctor right away.
Dr. Connor recommends keeping a close eye on any symptoms that might come up, maintaining regular check-ups with a doctor and getting the HPV vaccine as good first steps in both prevention and early detection.
Billings Clinic has the only Montana-based gynecologic oncologists in Montana and Wyoming and its physicians, along with a team of trained and professional staff, are available if you have been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer.
“We have a really outstanding, hard-working and expansive team that’s on the leading edge of treatment,” Connor said. “We also work with an extended team of medical professionals throughout Billings Clinic to make sure we’re providing the care our patients need.”
For more information, call (406) 238-2501 or visit www.billingsclinic.com/gynonc.