September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month
Women Need to Watch Warning Signs and Undergo Regular Screenings
Every six minutes in this country, another woman is diagnosed with gynecologic cancer, according to the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation. Gynecologic cancer refers to cancers of the reproductive organs, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, vagina and vulva.
"The most common of these is ovarian, uterine and cervical cancer," said Dr. Elizabeth Kurkjian, a Washington Hospital obstetrician and gynecologist who is helping to raise awareness about these cancers during Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. "It’s important to get regular gynecologic exams and screenings such as Pap tests, and pay attention to any changes in your menstrual cycle, irregular bleeding and other possible symptoms to catch precancerous or early stages of cancer when it is the most treatable."
Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death for women in the United States, but today it is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented through regular screenings. Over the last 50 years, incidence and death rates have plummeted due to a common screening known as the Pap test.
The most common gynecologic cancer today is uterine or endometrial cancer. Most cases of uterine cancer occur in women either during or after menopause. The vast majority of uterine cancers start in the uterus lining known as the endometrium.
Symptoms include excess bleeding during peri-menopause or continued bleeding after menopause as well as pain in the pelvic area or lower abdomen. The biggest risk factor for developing uterine cancer is too much exposure to the hormone estrogen. Current regimens of hormone therapy won’t increase your risk if taken correctly. Therefore, it is important to discuss any changes you make in your regimen with your doctor.
"I always tell my patients who are over 40, if you have any irregular bleeding or post menopausal bleeding, come and see me," Kurkjian said.
Ovarian Cancer Called ‘Silent Killer’
The most deadly form of gynecologic cancer is ovarian cancer. It attacks the ovaries, which produce hormones and store the eggs.
"Ovarian cancer is very hard to detect early," Kurkjian said. "The ovaries are deep in the pelvis and it’s not clear if there is a precancerous state."
Like all cancers, cure rates are highest when the cancer is detected early. Ovarian cancer has historically been called the "silent killer" due to the common belief that there are no warning signs, meaning the cancer is most often discovered in the end stages, when there is little chance for a cure.
However, recent studies have shown that there are common symptoms associated with ovarian cancer.
"Even though the symptoms can be vague, there is now more focus on the symptoms because for many women, there are common warning signs," Kurkjian said.
Bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary symptoms, including urgency or frequency, are all symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Women who have had ovarian cancer report that symptoms were persistent and represented a big change from what was normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of these symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer today.
"If you feel these symptoms on a regular basis, you should see your physician," Kurkjian said. "The first procedure I would do is a pelvic ultrasound. It is an excellent way to see the ovaries and uterus and has really become the first line in evaluation. If there is a tumor, we can often see it in the ultrasound."
Find a Local Gynecologist Online
To find a gynecologist close to you, visit www.whhs.com/physician or call Washington Hospital’s Health Connection line (800) 963-7070 for a physician referral. To learn more about gynecologic cancer online, visit www.wcn.org or www.thegcf.org.