6 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Gynecologic Cancers

Any woman can develop some form of gynecologic cancer, but there are major risk factors for each type.

gynecologic cancer

Over 21,000 women are diagnosed annually with a gynecological cancer in the United Kingdom and about 7,700 die as a result.

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Gynecologic cancers are those that affect the female reproductive organs. There are five main types, and each is named according to the part of the body in which it first develops: cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer (or endometrial cancer), vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer. Thousands of women will be diagnosed with one of these cancers this year, and thousands will die from one. Don’t stand idly by. Know the symptoms and take the necessary steps to avoid becoming one of the statistics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gynecological cancers, taken together, affected more than 84,000 women in 2009 (the latest year for which we have data) in the United States alone. They caused the death of almost 28,000 women.

Estimates from the National Cancer Institute are even more alarming: They predict more than 90,000 cases and 30,000 deaths per year, attributing nearly half of the diagnoses to cervical cancer and almost half of the deaths to ovarian cancer, the most lethal of them all.

The American Cancer Society’s data tends to coincide with the National Cancer Institute in terms of the number of diagnoses (about 91,730 were forecast for 2013), and with the CDC on the number of deaths—about 28,080 this year.

Gynecologic Cancer Risk Factors

Any woman can develop some form of gynecologic cancer, but there are major risk factors for each type. The risk increases with age, family history, and certain lifestyles.

Treatment is generally most effective if the cancer is detected early. But, unfortunately, many women ignore the warning signs (unusual vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain and/or heaviness, itching of the vulva, vaginal secretions that change color or texture, and inflammation, among others), or endure them for months without seeking medical attention.

There are many ways to protect yourself and reduce your risk of gynecologic cancer. Here are six important ones:

1. Know the symptoms of gynecologic cancer.

Start out by getting familiar with what’s normal for you (how long are and how heavy are your periods, for example), and paying attention to any changes occurring in your body (becoming fatigued easily, pain in your lower back). Any change that persists for several weeks warrants a consultation with your primary care doctor or your gynecologist. Here are the main symptoms of the various gynecologic cancers. Look out for them:

a) Cervical cancer: bleeding after intercourse or pain during sex, bleeding between menstrual periods, prolonged or heavier periods, bleeding after menopause.
b) Uterine cancer (or endometrial cancer): As above, pay attention if bleeding occurs between periods, if you have prolonged bleeding, bleeding after menopause, pain or pressure in the abdomen or pelvic area. In advanced stages, you may have weight loss and anemia. Unfortunately, 15 to 20 percent of women may have no symptoms.
c) Ovarian Cancer: abdominal inflammation (swelling) or bloating, pain in the abdomen or pelvis, increased frequency of urination or urgency to urinate, feeling full quickly or having difficulty eating, back pain, changes in menstrual periods and constipation.
d) Vaginal cancer: if you notice that your bathroom habits change (defecation or urination or both), or if you have irregular bleeding, bleeding between your periods, or pain in the pelvic area, visit your gynecologist.
e) Vulvar cancer: Among the symptoms are changes in a mole in the area of the vulva, a lump or sore that does not heal, and/or pain or burning in that area.

Keep in mind that many of these symptoms can also occur in conditions that have nothing to do with cancer. But, to be sure, it is important that you be examined by a doctor, preferably a gynecologist.

2. Learn your family history.

Ovarian cancer, the deadliest of the five types of cancer of the female reproductive system, is difficult to detect in its early stages. If there are cases of ovarian cancer or breast cancer in your family, your chances of getting both are greater. So it’s important to know your family’s health history. Inform your doctor if there are or have been relatives with ovarian cancer or breast cancer. He or she may recommend that you have a genetic test.

Also, if someone in your family has or has had colon cancer or uterine or endometrial cancer, your risk of developing some form of gynecologic cancer increases. A genetic test may help your doctor determine your risk, and the steps you can take to reduce it. These can range from intensive monitoring to preventive surgery.

3. Practice safe sex.

Having many sexual partners increases the risk of contracting the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is directly related to cervical cancer. If you have multiple partners, it is essential to use condoms.

4. Watch your weight.

Endometrial cancer or uterine cancer is the most common of all gynecological cancers and, if you are overweight, you have a higher risk of developing it. One way to significantly reduce your risk is to lose weight, which also helps to increase your chances of survival if you should happen to develop uterine cancer.

5. Have your regular screenings and get vaccinated.

For a time, cervical cancer was the most common cause of cancer death among women worldwide. But, with the widespread use of the Pap test (also called the Pap smear), mortality has plummeted, because the test can detect abnormal cells before they become cancer. Furthermore, cervical cancer could be largely eliminated if both young girls and boys were vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (HPV). Some strains of this virus, as mentioned above, are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. Don’t think of the HPV vaccine as a license to have sex; think of it as a vaccination against cancer!

As an adult, you can reduce your risk by having an HPV test, and talking with your doctor about the need to know if you have the virus. (See also our post “HPV-Related Throat Cancer on the Rise Among Men.”)

6. Find a specialist.

Studies show that if you have a gynecologic cancer, your best chance of successful treatment and survival is to consult with a specialist in gynecologic oncology.

Gynecological oncologists are doctors specially trained to treat these cancers, and know the latest treatments to deal with each of them. In addition, many of them have access to the latest clinical trials, and work as part of a team with other medical professionals, which guarantees superior care.

Looking Ahead

Now that you know what to do, take these simple steps and decrease your risk of developing a gynecologic cancer. And, if you’ve already been diagnosed with any of these types of cancer or have a high risk of getting one of them, don’t despair. Talk to your doctor, and calmly ask for a referral to a specialist in gynecologic oncology. The specialist and his or her team will help you choose the appropriate treatment.

And if you have concerns about whether what is recommended is the best therapy for your particular case, don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion. You are entitled to it. Take control!

Source: 6 formas de reducir tu riesgo de cáncer ginecológico
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Aliza Lifshitz, MD

Aliza Lifshitz M.D. (Doctora Aliza) is a renowned physician, author, and health reporter. She is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of VidaySalud.com, the largest online source of health and medical information … Read More

View all posts by Aliza Lifshitz, MD

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