- Knowing your family history
- Recognizing symptoms
These three guardrails that can help prevent any cancer. The risk of gynecological cancers in women are no different. Gynecological cancers are the ones that develop in a woman’s reproductive organs and are named accordingly:
- Cervical cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Each of these cancers present with unique symptoms, varied risk factors, and specific prevention strategies. Unusual vaginal bleeding, heavier periods, bleeding between periods, bleeding after menopause, are all indicators of changes within your body. If you observe any of these symptoms, it should trigger a conversation with your doctor to decide on next steps. While the symptoms may not mean cancer, its best to speak to your doctor to identify the cause.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a handy tool that can help you keep track of the frequency of any unusual symptoms, and could be a useful guide when talking to your doctor.
Prevention mechanisms for cancer can take up various forms, from changing habits to preventive surgery. All of these depend on educating yourself on your personal risks of gynecological cancer.
Changing your lifestyle
This could be the most challenging aspect of prevention because habits die hard. However, taking on a healthy-living lifestyle can benefit your overall health, in addition to preventing cancer.
- Avoid tobacco use: this app can be useful if you want to quit
- Eat a healthy diet with fresh food; avoid excessive fried or fatty foods
- Exercise: does not have to be rigorous; even a 20-minute walk each day can be good for you!
Timely and regular screening
Earliest detection—maybe even before symptoms start—is important. That is why starting screening at the recommended age and following up regularly with your doctor is important to catch cancer early. The American Cancer Society recommends gynecologic cancer screening should start at age 21, with a Pap test (for cervical cancer) every three years. An HPV (human papillomavirus) test is recommended starting at age 30, along with Pap.
If you know you are at a higher risk of developing gynecologic cancer, such as ovarian cancer, you can consider surgical removal of the ovaries to reduce your risk.
Additionally, knowledge of your family’s medical history is critical because it can:
- Help calculate your risk of developing cancer
- Decide the right screening test and its frequency
- Whether you need genetic counseling and/or testing
Hereditary Gynecologic Cancer Syndromes
There are two main hereditary syndromes that are known to increase a woman’s risk of developing a gynecologic cancer:
- Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) Syndrome: Mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that heightens the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The syndrome is confirmed when there are multiple cases of breast and/or ovarian cancer on the same side of the family.
- Lynch syndrome: Also recognized with the acronym HNPCC (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer), Lynch syndrome raises a person’s risk of developing uterine, colorectal, and ovarian, and a few other cancers, usually at a younger age. A family history of colorectal cancer is a strong indicator of family members being positive for Lynch syndrome.
If your family history suggests you may be at a high risk of developing a cancer syndrome, you should get a referral for genetic counseling. The counselor can help understand your family’s health history and talk to you about the pros and cons of genetic testing, and whether you need it.
Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. is a biologist with academic research experience, who brings her skills and knowledge to the health care communications world. She provides writing and strategic support to non-profit groups via her consultancy, SDG AdvoHealth, LLC.
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