For most young women, it’s easy to think of cancer as something to worry about tomorrow. While it’s true that diseases such as gynecological cancer increase with age, there’s no reason we shouldn’t think about it today.
Every woman is at risk for gynecological cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that a whopping 80,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with a gynecological cancer each year. And according to a study by the American Cancer Society, women who ignore their symptoms are more likely to be diagnosed with an advanced stage.
Increasing awareness of your body makes all the difference. While there is no definite way to squash every risk, early detection greatly increases survival rates. September is Gynecological Awareness Month, so take note of these warning signs, and help protect your body against a potentially deadly illness.
01. Abnormally Heavy or Irregular Menstrual Periods
Oh, Aunt Flo. She’s the ultimate know-it-all when it comes to our bodies. When something goes awry, you can be sure she’ll notice.
The Mayo Clinic defines abnormally heavy bleeding as a period that lasts more than seven days. “You shouldn’t have a heavily soaked pad or tampon for more than two to three of those seven days,” says A. Nicky Hjort, M.D., OB-GYN at Peninsula Primary Care in California. If you do, consider your menstrual period abnormally heavy.
A period is irregular when the frequency of bleeding is inconsistent. Cleveland Clinic says that the length of the average period is four to seven days. Often, a cycle ranges from twenty-one to thirty-five days. If a period lasts longer than seven days, you can also consider it irregular. The same goes for periods that start less than twenty-one or more than thirty-five days apart from each other. Three missed periods in a row and/or bleeding between periods is also irregular. Because every woman is different, it’s vital to be aware of what is normal for you.
So, what does this mean for gynecological cancer? The CDC lists abnormal menstruation as a symptom for four of the five gynecological cancers (cervical, uterine, ovarian, and vaginal). This emphasizes how vital it is to be aware of and listen to your body’s natural fertility movements.
An abnormal period can mean many things, though. Significant lifestyle changes such as moving to a new town or changing your schedule can offset your cycle. Even common situations such as chasing deadlines at work can shake up your cycle, usually due to increased stress. Weight fluctuations can also have an impact.
Any change in your menstrual period warrants a chat with your primary care physician or OB-GYN. While it’s not uncommon for doctors to ask how Aunt Flo is doing at a regular checkup, don’t wait until your next one to fill them in.
02. Abdominal, Pelvic, and Back Pain
When a cancer of the reproductive system develops, the surrounding areas are bound to feel a little something. The CDC lists abdominal, pelvic, and/or back pain as a symptom of ovarian, uterine, and vulvar cancers. Specific locations of pain may differ depending on the type of cancer. For example, the ACS found that abdominal pain was most common in patients with ovarian cancer. This includes the area below your stomach and between your hip bones, according to the CDC. Gastrointestinal, urinary, and pelvic pain were also present.
Pelvic pain, which originates in or around the genital area, should also raise a red flag. Johns Hopkins Medicine says that the cause of cancer-induced pelvic pain comes from the nerves. When cancer is present, these nerves experience direct irritation.
This is where a pelvic exam comes in. As part of a regular OB-GYN visit, your doctor will check out the physical status of your organs. This will help her assess any discoloration or swelling, especially where you’re feeling pain. The ACS states that omission of the pelvic exam is a significant factor in delayed diagnosis. Just another reason why we recommend seeing your gynecologist every year.
03. Abnormal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is normal and natural. When the discharge changes, your body is telling you something. Consider any change in color, odor, or frequency abnormal, Hjort says. The CDC pegs abnormal discharge as a symptom for cervical, ovarian, uterine, and vaginal cancer.
Hjort suggests this rule of thumb. “Ask yourself: Has anything changed? Is this normal for me?”
Like irregular periods, this is a complex issue. It’s not unlikely for a woman’s discharge to change right before and after her period. Ovulating, stress, pregnancy, and menopause can also cause changes, as indicated by the U.S. Library of Medicine.
When it comes to cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology states that the disease weakens the immune system. As a result, white blood cell levels decrease, opening the door for infections. This explains why abnormal discharge—a symptom of vaginal infections—may be present with gynecological cancer.
It helps to pay attention not just to the discharge but also to the typical changes you experience as you go through your cycle. Knowing what to expect will help you notice differences as soon as they happen.
04. Changes in Bathroom Habits
The bladder and gastrointestinal tract are right next to the pelvic area. It’s no surprise that gynecological cancers also affect these body parts. The ACOS defines urinary incontinence as urine leakage during normal activities, such as laughing or exercising.
Normally, muscles and nerves signal to the bladder to control urinating. Gynecological cancers can damage the ability of these muscles and nerves. While a myriad of conditions can cause urinary incontinence, don’t overlook it. If you are experiencing urinary incontinence, don’t be embarrassed to mention it to your doctor.
Noticing a change in bowel movements can be another sign of cancer. The ACOS states that tumor compression or bowel obstruction of tissue can lead to constipation. It can be caused by failing to stay hydrated or eating less food due to other cancer-related symptoms, such as abdominal pain or stressing about irregular periods.
Of course, a bout of constipation doesn’t mean you have cancer. If you notice a change from your norm, it’s a good idea to listen to your gut and get checked out. It could be a sign for a bigger, more complicated problem.
05. Abnormal Pap Smear
Forty years ago, cervical cancer was the leading cause of death of women in the United States, according to the CDC. Fortunately, thanks to a screening tool called a Pap smear, that number has decreased significantly. This exam looks for abnormalities in the cervical cells. These abnormalities can turn into cancer but may take many years to do so. A Pap smear can catch a problem before it even starts, proving the importance of regular checkups.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women should start getting Pap smears at 21 years old. Get a Pap smear every one to three years after that. The frequency depends on a woman’s lifestyle, risk factors, and previous test results. If there are no significant lifestyle changes, women ages 30 to 65 should get a Pap every five years.
If your Pap smear comes back abnormal, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. The cell abnormalities just warrant more frequent Pap smears, ranging from every six months to one year. This will enable your OB-GYN to keep a watchful eye and prevent cervical cancer from forming. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor for an HPV test, as HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer but isn’t detected in a Pap test.
When it comes to gynecological cancer, signs and symptoms can be tricky. We hope these methods will help you pay closer attention to what your body is telling you. “If found early enough, most [gynecological cancers] are readily treated in this era of modern medicine,” Hjort says. By acknowledging changes when they happen, you’re welcoming early detection and respecting your most valuable asset: your health.