It’s been several years since my mom’s best friend died from ovarian cancer. The diagnosis came suddenly, and death swiftly followed. It hit my mom hard, because they had been like sisters since they were little girls. They were born two days apart and had grown up together. They lived in the same town almost all their lives and I can hardly remember a day they didn’t talk on the phone. That is, until ovarian cancer struck.
September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. Unlike October, which is awash in pink paraphernalia for breast cancer awareness, September goes relatively unnoticed. Women should pay attention, though, because early detection of gynecologic cancer can save lives.
What is gynecologic cancer?
According to the Women’s Cancer Network, “Gynecologic cancers are the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells originating in the female reproductive organs, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, vagina, and vulva.” There are several types of gynecologic cancer, each affecting different parts of the female reproductive system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced materials to help women learn more about gynecologic cancers. It is important that women become aware of the signs and symptoms, and that they have regular gynecological exams. More than 70,000 women each year are diagnosed with one form of gynecologic cancer or another, but few women know much about this type of cancer at all.
Types of gynecologic cancers
Vaginal and vulvar cancers affect the external genitalia or the vagina. They are rare, with less than 5000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Signs of vulvar cancer include persistent itching or burning, sores or lumps that don’t heal, skin changes and pelvic pain. Signs of vaginal cancer include pelvic or abdominal pain, changes in bathroom habits and irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge.
Cervical cancer is the only cancer screened by the Pap test. Regular checkups make cervical cancer one of the easiest cancers to diagnose and treat early. In many cases, cervical cancer is diagnosed before any symptoms manifest. However, advanced cervical cancer can cause heavy and irregular bleeding. Even women beyond their reproductive years should continue being screened for this cancer.
Uterine cancer is the most common type of gynecologic cancer. It begins in the uterus, and common symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain or pressure. Again, the Pap test does not screen for this cancer, so women should pay close attention to any signs that something is not normal.
Ovarian cancer is one of the sneakiest cancers of all. There is no test to detect this cancer early, so women need to be especially aware of the signs. Abnormal vaginal bleeding is one possible symptom. Pelvic, abdominal or back pain, bloating, and changes in bathroom habits are a few others. Any of these symptoms together, especially if persistent, should be taken seriously.
Reducing your risk
Smoking, obesity, and infertility and infection with HPV may all increase your risk of various gynecologic cancers. Also a personal history of other types of cancer or a family history of gynecologic cancer may elevate your risk. Unfortunately, many women with no risk factors at all are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers each year. There may be no way to eliminate your risk of developing one of these cancers, but early detection can help you survive.
Because my mom was acutely aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, she recognized them in herself not long after her friend died. She went to the doctor, and her ovaries indeed needed to be removed. She survived thanks to awareness, a final gift from her best friend.
More by Tavia:
Colorectal Cancer Screening Can Save Your Life
Dealing With Early-Onset Puberty in Girls
Preparing for your daughter’s first gynecologist visit