blog contributed by Margaret L. Grotzinger, MD, OB/GYN, Partners in Women's Healthcare, P.C
September is National Gynecology Oncology month; as many of us are sending our kids back to school; it’s time to also educate ourselves about the typical signs and symptoms of the common cancers that can affect our reproductive organs.
We often hear about ovarian cancer and how difficult it is to diagnose in early stages, but actually the most common reproductive cancer in women is uterine cancer. This type of cancer typically arises in the endometrium, the lining of the uterine cavity. Uterine cancer occurs mostly in women who have already gone through menopause, and the typical symptom that it presents with is bleeding. We define menopause as being without periods for a year; therefore, any kind of vaginal bleeding (even if it is just spotting) after menopause needs to be evaluated by your health care provider, and endometrial cancer ruled out. Although uterine cancer is most common in postmenopausal women, it can also occur in women before menopause. In this scenario, heavy bleeding with periods, or bleeding in between periods, is the most common symptom.
Cervical cancer arises in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Although the cervix is part of the uterus, cancers that develop on the cervix are very different from those that arise in the uterine cavity. Cervical cancer is caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted virus. Cervical cancer can be prevented by getting regular Pap smears, which allows us to diagnose abnormal cells before they turn in to cancer. The guidelines for Pap smear screening have changed, so be sure to consult with your health care provider about what an appropriate screening interval is for you. Cervical cancer is most common in women age 30-60, and the typical symptom is abnormal bleeding, most notably bleeding after sex, or bleeding in between periods. For women who are already past menopause, any vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom of cervical cancer.
Ovarian cancer continues to be a difficult cancer to diagnose early and cure. Currently we do not have any good screening test for ovarian cancer. To complicate matters more, the typical symptoms for ovarian cancer are often symptoms of other disorders that are not so serious. These symptoms include pelvic pain, low back pain, indigestion, changes in bowel habits, abdominal bloating or a sense of “feeling full” after eating. A good rule of thumb is that if you have any of these symptoms persisting for more than 2-3 weeks, see your health care provider and make sure they evaluate you for the possibility of ovarian cancer.
The last type of reproductive cancer that is not so well known is vulvar cancer. The vulva includes the labia, clitoris , vaginal opening and perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus). These cancers are not very common, but again, are very curable if caught early. The typical symptoms are a persistent sore or open spot on the skin, persistent itching, or burning and pain. Vulvar cancer can also arise in a genital wart that is growing or not responding to typical treatment
Don’t delay in seeing your health care provider if you notice any of these symptoms! Although they may commonly be caused by something other than a cancer of the reproductive organ, there is no way for you to know for sure without getting checked out. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
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Watch Susan's Story - an Ovarian Cancer Survivor