According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every woman is at risk of gynecological cancer: uterine, ovarian, cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancer. Each year 80,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with a gynecological cancer; another 25,000 die from one. A woman is at risk for a gynecological cancer simply by being a woman. This risk amplifies with age, so it’s important to take on preventative measures when you’re young. September is Gynecological Awareness Month, so there’s no time like the present to take care of your lady parts.
“Gynecological cancer” is an umbrella term for six cancers of a woman’s reproductive organs. Each type of cancer gets its name based on the specific organ it develops in.
Cancer of the uterus, also known as the womb. This is where a baby grows during pregnancy.
Cancer of the ovaries, which are found on each side of the uterus. The ovaries are responsible for producing our hormones and eggs.
Cancer of the cervix, the narrow end of the uterus. This part connects the uterus to the vagina. The cervix is also what helps to keep a baby inside the womb during pregnancy.
Cancer of the vagina, a tubelike part that connects the bottom of the uterus (cervix) to the outside of the body.
Cancer of the vulva, the outermost part of a female’s genital organs. This includes the folds of skin along the outside of the vagina.
Fallopian Tube Cancer
Cancer of the fallopian tubes, thin tubes that carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. This cancer, however, is extremely rare. According to University of California San Francisco Medical Center, fallopian tube cancer accounts for only 1 or 2 percent of gynecological cancers.
As with anything related to your body, it’s never too early (or too late) to take charge. By arming yourself with knowledge today, you’ll pave the way for your health tomorrow.
01. Know your medical history.
If you want to get to know your body, get to know your roots. Being familiar with your medical history is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Of the five more common gynecological cancers, ovarian cancer is most likely to run through families. The American Cancer Society shares that a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer increases when an immediate family member (mother, sister, or daughter) has ovarian cancer. The risk is even higher if a relative on your father’s side has also been diagnosed.
A history of breast cancer also increases your risk for ovarian cancer. Inherited mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, found in breast cancer, are associated with ovarian cancer. These two genes are tumor suppressors when in the normal state. Mutations, however, disable these genes from doing their job. This correlation provides yet another reason to maintain good breast health, too.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to ask your folks about all types of gynecological cancers. The more you know, the more power you have in taking control of your health. This information is especially useful for your primary care physician and gynecologist to know.
Researching your family’s health will also ensure that you’re aware of non-gynecological conditions that are risk factors for all gynecological cancers. The biggest two are obesity and diabetes, two diseases that often develop side by side with cancer. A high risk for these diseases can turn into a high risk for all cancers, including gynecological.
02. Don’t skip checkups.
Staying on top of your OB-GYN appointments can help catch a problem before it even starts. Each checkup is a chance for a professional to assess your current lifestyle, perform screenings, and provide guidance. The MetroHealth System recommends that women make an annual trip to the gynecologist. But depending on your lifestyle and past test results, your doctor may require you to visit as frequently as every six months to as little as every three years.
A gynecologist appointment often starts with a little Q and A. It’s imperative to be 100 percent honest with your doctor. This is the key to helping him or her provide the most accurate preventative measures. “If I don’t understand my patient’s lifestyle, I can’t counsel her properly,” says A. Nicky Hjort, M.D., OB-GYN at Peninsula Primary Care in California.
The Journal of Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology states that lifestyle factors such as when you begin to have children, nutrition, weight, exercise, caffeine consumption, smoking, and stress can have “substantial effects on fertility.” Having many pregnancies to term, for example, protects against endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer. And women who smoke are about two times more likely to develop cervical cancer than nonsmokers. Think about which of these lifestyle factors may apply to you, and discuss them with your doctor during your next visit.
When you’re honest with your gynecologist, you’re providing her with the best tools to help you. This is true not only for gynecological cancers but for all reproductive-related diseases as well. Don’t be afraid to tell her what you’re feeling “down there.” It’s also important to disclose how many sexual partners you’ve had (or haven’t had). “It’s not our place to judge,” Hjort says. Your doctor’s priority is your health.
After the Q and A comes the pelvic exam. Your doctor will check out your organs for physical abnormalities such as swelling, redness, or irritation. Signs and symptoms of gynecological cancer include abnormal discharge, sores, itching, or pelvic pain. This is where things get tricky, though. Each cancer has slightly varied symptoms that affect different people in different ways. At the same time, some symptoms may overlap with other cancers.
During the pelvic exam, your doctor will check for irregular growths on organs known as polyps. “Often, they cause random or profuse bleeding,” Hjort says. “However, they are almost always benign and can be easily removed by a doctor.”
When it comes to gynecological cancers, physical exams are most useful for detecting early signs of vulvar and ovarian cancers, according to Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. The physical exam is preventative for all reproductive cancers and diseases, though.
03. Get routine Pap smears.
A routine Pap smear is another part of a regular OB-GYN visit. According to the CDC, women should start receiving Pap smears at age 21. From ages 30 to 65, the National Cancer Institute suggests getting one every five years if no lifestyle factors have changed. Also known as a Pap test, this cervical cancer screening tool checks for cervix cell abnormalities. Your doctor will scrape a few cells from your cervix and send the sample off to a lab.
If the cells are abnormal, your doctor will ask you to pay her a visit more frequently—every six months or yearly. This way, she can keep tabs on the cell abnormalities. Because these cells need a long period of time before turning cancerous (if at all), catching them early is the best way to stop them.
Thanks to Pap smears, cervical cancer is the most preventable cancer. It is also the second most common cancer in women worldwide, according to Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. Staying on top of your appointment game will do wonders for your health.
Often, a Pap smear is paired with an HPV (human papillomavirus) test. Because almost all individuals with cervical cancer also have HPV, according to the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, this test is an extremely beneficial screening tool. An HPV test is not always standard with your Pap though. Be sure to request it, as you can have a normal Pap smear result but still have HPV. Don’t be afraid to double check or ask for one; it’s the best way to cover all your bases.
04. Maintain a healthy weight.
In world full of convenience food and processed meals, it can be hard to eat well. We’re looking at you, cute cafés on every corner. If you’re aiming to eat a more well-rounded diet or begin an exercise regime, start small. Not only will you feel great from the inside out, but you’ll also lower your risk for gynecological cancer.
A sedentary lifestyle paired with a diet full of sugar, sodium, and saturated fat is a medley of risk factors for obesity and diabetes. According to the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, diabetes is associated with gynecological cancers. The mechanism comes down to the sugar. The study found that glucose provides energy for tumor cells, promoting growth of the bad guys. And when your body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs, it will have a hard time fighting them off.
Eating well sets the tone for your body. It provides it with the nourishment to keep you in tip-top condition. Harvard Health suggests limiting refined and liquid sugars (such as soda and juice) and salt and instead opting for whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Of course, we can’t forget about the H2O. For women, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests nine cups of water each day.
A healthy lifestyle isn’t complete without physical activity. While you don’t have to start running marathons, exercising can make a huge impact on healthy weight maintenance. Start small, and work your way to the recommended thirty minutes of daily physical activity. Even a brisk walk or a TV workout can make a difference.
Now that you know how these simple preventative habits can impact your reproductive health, you’ve just made a big move for yourself. Being proactive is the best way to honor ourselves and our bodies, all year round.