Fight Cervical Cancer with Prevention and Early Detection
More than 80,000 women a year in the United States are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, such as cervical cancer, endometrial (uterine) cancer, or ovarian cancer. There are many nationally observed months dedicated to bringing awareness to these types of women’s cancer and January is recognized as Cervical Health Awareness Month.
The National Cervical Cancer Coalition and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center stress that prevention and early detection are the key factors in the fight against gynecological cancers.
“Unfortunately, because symptoms for these cancers are often vague, many women mistake them for other less serious conditions,” said Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. “So, it’s important to know exactly what to look for because gynecologic cancers are usually most treatable when found early.”
About Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is caused by specific types of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can cause a precancerous condition called cervical dysplasia, in which the cells on the surface of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus) grow abnormally. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women, killing 4,000 Americans a year.
Cervical cancer usually develops very slowly. Precancerous dysplasia can be detected by a Pap smear and is 100% treatable. If left untreated, the condition can develop into cancer and spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs, and liver. Women are encouraged to begin screening for cervical cancer annually beginning at age 21. After age 30, pap smears can fall back to once every three years if HPV screening is included, notes Linus Chuang, director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Mount Sinai. Women can stop getting pap smears after age 65 if they have no abnormal results.
Dr. Chuang notes that if women stick to regular ob-gyn visits, pap smears and HPV testing, the chance of getting cervical cancer is much less than 1%.
The biggest breakthrough in the fight against cervical cancer is the HPV vaccine. It is recommended for women aged 9 to 26, given before the first sexual relationship. The vaccine protects against four strains of the virus, including two strains that account for 75% of all cervical cancers.
Other risk factors for cervical cancer include having sex at an early age, having multiple sex partners, weakened immune system, and smoking. Smoking, notes Dr. Chuang, is the number one promoter of the progression of cancer cells.
Hopefully, women are able to see their physicians regularly to be screened for cervical and other gynecological cancers. However, if you are experiencing one of the following 10 symptoms, Therese Bevers MD, director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center suggest you visit the doctor sooner, especially if you have already gone through menopause.
- Swollen leg. If one leg looks or feels more swollen than the other for no reason, and there is accompanying pain, discharge or other symptoms, it may be a sign of cervical cancer.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding. More than 90% of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer experience irregular bleeding. Women who’ve already undergone menopause should have any bleeding — including spotting — evaluated. Women who haven’t gone through menopause should see a doctor about bleeding between periods, heavy bleeding or bleeding during sex.
- Unexplained weight loss. Women who suddenly lose more than 10 pounds without changing diet or exercise habits should see their doctor.
- Vaginal discharge colored with blood. Bloody, dark or smelly discharge usually signals infection. But sometimes, it’s a sign of cervical or endometrial cancer.
- Constantly needing bathroom breaks. Frequent urination or continuous bladder pressure may be a sign of cancer. Take note especially if you also feel full, have abdominal pain and experience bloating.
- Loss of appetite or constant feeling full. These appetite changes may be symptoms of ovarian cancer.
- Pain in the pelvis or abdominal area. Ongoing abdominal pain or discomfort — including gas, indigestion, pressure, bloating and cramps — can signal ovarian cancer. And, constant pelvic pain or pressure can be a sign of endometrial cancer.
- Belly bloat. Women often feel bloated after eating or drinking a lot, especially during their menstrual cycles. But a woman may have ovarian cancer if she continues feeling bloated for more than two weeks or after her period ends.
- Constant fatigue. A little rest should typically cure fatigue. But women should see a doctor if fatigue constantly interferes with work or leisure activities.
- Persistent indigestion or nausea. Feeling queasy for an extended period of time? Occasionally, persistent indigestion or nausea can signal gynecologic cancers, so play it safe and see a doctor.
“Remember, having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer,” says Dr. Bevers. “But if they last two weeks or longer, see your doctor. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”