It’s Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month — How Aware Are You

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 100,000 cases of gynecologic cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and more than 30,000 women will die of these cancers in 2021 alone.

Clearly, there’s more work to do. But we have made progress in the fight against gynecologic cancer. And one of our most valuable weapons is information.

We’ve learned about lowering the risk for these cancers and how to prevent some of them. We also know more about possible signs of the cancers, something that’s important because bringing symptoms to your doctor’s attention can lead to early detection and treatment. And early treatment leads to better outcomes. That’s why we’re sharing this information with you, and hope that you’ll pass it along to others.

September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, making it a perfect time to learn more about gynecologic cancer, including cancers of the cervix, ovaries, uterus, vagina and vulva.

Cervical cancer

One key thing to know: HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines and regular screening tests may help prevent cervical cancer.

HPV vaccines protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. Vaccination is best before someone becomes sexually active, so we recommend it at age 11 or 12. You can get the vaccine through age 26 if you don’t get it earlier. In some cases, you can get it up to age 45 if you and your health care provider decide it’s right for you.

What puts you at risk

  • A history of multiple sex partners
  • Giving birth to three or more children
  • Infection with HPV, a virus transmitted during sex
  • Smoking

How to lower your risk

  • Don’t smoke
  • Get the HPV vaccine
  • Get screened with a Pap test and/or an HPV test

Screening typically starts at age 21 with a Pap test. Your health care provider can tell you how often to get screened, which test(s) to have and when you can stop screening.

Possible symptoms

  • Abnormal bleeding between periods or unusual vaginal discharge
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Pelvic pain

Ovarian cancer

One key thing to know: There’s no good way to screen for ovarian cancer and no known way to prevent it for most people, making recognizing possible symptoms of the disease even more important.

What puts you at risk

  • BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations
  • Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish heritage
  • Family history of both colon and uterine (endometrial cancer) or male breast cancer
  • Family history of ovarian cancer in a close relative
  • Not bearing children or having trouble getting pregnant
  • Personal history of breast, colorectal or uterine cancer

How to lower your risk

  • Breastfeed your babies
  • Consider risk-reduction surgery if you’re at high genetic risk
  • Give birth at least once
  • Use birth control pills for at least five years

Possible symptoms

  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Eating difficulties or feeling full quickly
  • Frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • Pelvic pain or pressure
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause

If you experience these symptoms 12 days out of the month or more, please visit your gynecologist.

Uterine Cancer

One key thing to know: The vast majority of women with the most common type of uterine cancer — endometrial cancer, or cancer affecting the lining of the uterus — survive because of early detection. That’s a good reason to know the symptoms.

What puts you at risk

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Estrogen hormone replacement therapy alone, without progesterone
  • Family history of uterine, ovarian or colon cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • Never becoming pregnant
  • Use of the drug tamoxifen for breast cancer, combined with the above risk factors

How to lower your risk

  • Achieve or maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Maintain healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Take progesterone if you are taking estrogen for hormone replacement therapy

Possible symptoms

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, including bleeding between periods or bleeding after menopause
  • Pain during sex
  • Persistent pelvic pain or pressure

Vaginal and vulvar cancer

One key thing to know: Getting the HPV vaccine helps protect against these rare cancers.

What puts you at risk

  • Conditions, such as HIV, that weaken the immune system
  • Persistent infection with certain types of HPV
  • Precancers of the vagina, vulva or cervix
  • Smoking, if you have an HPV infection

How to lower your risk

  • Get regular pelvic exams
  • Get the HPV vaccine
  • Stop smoking

Possible symptoms of vaginal cancer

  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Constipation, frequent urination or blood in the stool or urine
  • Pelvic pain
  • Vaginal discharge

Possible symptoms of vulvar cancer

  • Abnormal bleeding or discharge
  • Chronic bleeding, burning or itching of the vulva
  • Pelvic pain, especially during urination or sex
  • Sores, lumps, dark spots, red rash or raw areas on the vulva

Talk to your doctor

You’ve taken the first step by learning more. Next, talk to your doctor to learn more about your risk for gynecologic cancer and how to protect yourself or if you notice any concerning symptoms.

Find a gynecologist at Luminis Health Doctors Community Medical Center or Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Monica Jones, MDMonica Jones, MD, MS, FACS, FACG is the chair of Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Women’s and Children’s services. To make an appointment with a Luminis Health gynecologic oncologist, please call 443-481-3493.

Luminis Health was recently joined by Michael L. Hicks, MD, a board certified gynecologic oncologist. Dr. Hicks has a wealth of experience in gynecologic oncology.