How to protect yourself from gynecologic cancers
Learn about risks, screenings and prevention tips for cancers only women face.
Q: What are the most common gynecologic cancers?
A: Endometrial, ovarian and cervical cancer, in that order. Endometrial cancer forms in the tissue lining of the uterus. Ovarian cancer forms in the tissue of the ovaries. Cervical cancer forms in the organ connecting the uterus and the vagina (the cervix).
Q: What are risk factors for these cancers?
A: Obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a family history of cancer put you at an increased risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers. Women who don’t have children are also at higher risk. Pregnancy has a protective effect because it gives the ovaries a rest. So does taking birth control pills. Having multiple sexual partners is the main risk factor for cervical cancer because it increases the likelihood of being exposed to high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common cause of cervical cancer.
Q: How do you get screened for these cancers?
A: The Pap test is effective at detecting cervical cancer. An annual Pap test used to be the norm, but physicians now agree if you have three normal Pap tests in a row, you can usually get tested every 2-3 years. Every woman still needs an annual pelvic exam. Endometrial and ovarian cancers don’t have standard screening tests and are harder to detect, so it’s important to watch for early symptoms. Any kind of abnormal bleeding – bleeding between periods or for prolonged periods in younger women or post-menopausal bleeding in older women – needs immediate evaluation, because it could be a sign of endometrial cancer. The earliest symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, abdominal discomfort, pelvic pain and changes in bowel or bladder habits. If any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your doctor.
Q: What else can I do to protect myself?
A: Exercise and a healthy diet are important. Girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26 should be vaccinated against HPV, which may prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers. If you’re at high risk – if you’ve had cancer or have a family history of cancer – consider consulting a gynecologic cancer specialist.