What all women should know about gynecologic cancers

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Many of us know we should conduct a breast self-exam every month, get a colonoscopy when we turn 45 or go see our dermatologist when one of our moles starts looking a little funny, but what do we know about taking care of our reproductive organs? After the child-bearing years are over, do we still have any need for our gynecologist?

September is Gyn Cancer awareness month, and we want you to know about the symptoms or screening steps for gynecologic cancers: cancers of the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, vagina and vulva. Learn more about these cancers that originate in the female reproductive organs from Dr. Renee Cowan, who along with a whole team of various physicians and providers, specializes in GYN oncology at Woman’s Hospital.

What are the types of GYN cancer?

Uterine cancer is the most common GYN cancer and is ranked No. 4 in new cancer cases in women per year and No. 6 for cancer deaths in women. The cancer can affect the uterus lining, called the endometrium, or the outer smooth muscle tissue called the myometrium. The most common and earliest symptom or red flag is often abnormal vaginal bleeding.

While it remains the most common gynecologic cancer in the world, nationwide, cervical cancer rates have been declining with the advent of pap smears and the HPV vaccine. Louisiana, however, is ranked in the top 10 for states with new cervical cancer cases. This cancer is usually caused by the HPV virus, which integrates into the DNA of the cells in the cervix and starts to make them abnormal until they become increasingly more abnormal and become cancerous. A pap smear can detect those abnormal cells, and they can be removed by your gynecologist before cancer develops.

Your vagina and vulva can also develop cancer in a similar way, where the cells become increasingly more abnormal and eventually progress to cancer. Cowan encourages women to look at those parts of the body in the same way that they examine the rest of their skin. Any bump or discolored area is reason to see a doctor. Rates of vulvar dysplasia, or changes in the skin that covers the vulva, have increased by 40 percent in the last decade.

Ovarian cancer is not as common in south Louisiana, but it can be the most deadly. It’s the fifth most common cancer killer for women, and it also has the most silent symptoms, including weight loss or weight gain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea.

When should you see a gynecologist?

Women should see their gynecologist yearly, regardless of whether they are done having children, had a partial or full hysterectomy or entered menopause. Through a pelvic exam, a gynecologist can pick up on subtle changes in the female reproductive organs and save your life.

Abnormal bleeding is always a reason to schedule an appointment, whether it’s heavy bleeding when you are of reproductive age or bleeding after menopause. Menopause means you have not bled in 12 months, so if you start bleeding again, go and see a doctor whether it’s a little spotting or a heavy flow.

What are the risk factors for GYN cancers?

Obesity is one of the top risk factors for some of these types of cancers because the extra fat cells in our bodies make estrogen, which disrupts normal hormone levels and can lead to the growth and development of cancer cells, specifically in the uterus. Women who haven’t had children are also at a higher risk. A pregnancy that goes to term is associated with a reduced risk of developing ovarian and endometrial cancers.

Dr. Cowan says her message about prevention is always to eat more fruits and vegetables and get more exercise. While healthy people do get cancer, unhealthy people get a lot more cancer and it becomes increasingly more difficult to treat. “Typically, women who are healthier can handle treatment like champs and just cruise through it and be sitting on the other side of a cure,” she says.

If you have any concern about your health or certain symptoms you may be feeling, please reach out to your primary care provider or your gynecologist. If you are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, it is important to be treated by a gynecologic oncologist, a physician who has specialized and been trained to treat cancers of the female reproductive organs.

For more information about gynecologic cancers or to find a doctor, visit womans.org.