SPRINGFIELD – It’s important for women to understand the steps they can take to reduce the risk of uterine and other gynecologic cancers such as cervical, ovarian, vaginal and vulva, and to receive the earliest diagnosis.
September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States in 2009, some 84,155 women were told that they had gynecologic cancer.
While symptoms of gynecologic cancer may differ among women, and because they may be masked by other health conditions, it is important to recognize any changes in your body and share them with your doctor, Dr. Tashanna Myers, a gynecologic oncologist at the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, noted.
Common symptoms can include pelvic pain or pressure, abdominal or back pain, bloating, changes in bowel habits, and abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
“In the case of endometrial cancers, once you have gone 12 months without a period that is menopause, you should not bleed again. There are misconceptions that your period can come back and stress can be a major cause, but this is untrue. If bleeding occurs, you need to be evaluated as soon as possible,” Myers said.
The Baystate gynecologist stated one of the reasons why survival rates for endometrial cancers are high is the fact that women have symptoms such as bleeding.
“The symptoms of ovarian cancer, for example, can be very non-specific such as bloating, feeling fuller quicker and weight gain. So, women need to advocate for themselves and see their gynecologist or primary care doctor if they have concerns,” she said.
Some gynecologic cancers, such as endometrial cancer, are the result of lifestyle choices and can be prevented with diet modification and strict control of existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
For cervical cancers, the main cause is the human papillomavirus (HPV) passed from one person to another during sex (in particular, those with multiple sex partners), this can be detected early through the Pap test for women age 21 to 65 and the HPV test for women age 30 or older. Today there are also HPV vaccines to protect against those types of HPV, which often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
“Some parents do not want their child vaccinated against HPV because they feel it gives them a license to have sex. But, when we know that HPV is the causative force behind cervical cancer and that we can do something to prevent it, we need to work alongside pediatricians in educating parents about its potential life-saving benefits and administer the vaccine before a young person becomes sexually active,” Myers stated.
The CDC recommends that all 11- and 12-year-old girls get three doses the HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer. Girls and young women ages 13 to 26 should get the vaccine if they have not received any or all doses when they were younger.
The CDC also recommends vaccine for all boys ages 11 or 12, and for males ages 13 to 21 years, who did not get any or all of the three recommended doses when they were younger.
Still, other gynecologic cancers are genetic and are not preventable, and many are spontaneous for which no reason is known why women develop them.
Age is typically the biggest risk factor for gynecologic cancers.
“The risk increases as you get older, so it is important to continue seeing your gynecologist regularly for exams. Family history also plays an important role. If certain cancers such as breast and prostate are common in your family, you may be at greater risk for ovarian cancer,” Myers said, who stressed maintaining a healthy lifestyle including a proper diet and exercise can help reduce your risk.
Treatment for gynecologic cancers, depending on the type and stage, include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
For women with a genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers because they carry the BRACA 1 and 2 genes, preventive surgery by removing the ovaries can reduce their risk of ovarian cancer up to 96 percent, noted Myers.
“We strongly encourage women with one of these genes, and even those with no mutations but a strong family history of ovarian cancer, to have their ovaries removed. There are no screening tests for ovarian cancer, therefore, no way to detect it in its earliest stages, so we recommend preventive surgery at age 35 or as close to 35 as possible after a woman completes her child bearing years,” Myers added.
She continued, “For women of childbearing age who develop gynecologic cancers, there are less radical options that can allow patients to maintain their fertility. I encourage young women to explore these options with a gynecologic oncologist who specializes in these options.”
For more information on Baystate Medical Center and its Regional Cancer Program, especially gynecologic oncology, go to http://baystatehealth.org/Baystate/brcp