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Educating women about gynecological cancer

Did you know? September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.

This month is the perfect time to talk to the women in your life about their health to make sure they’re talking to their family doctor about the dangers of gynecological cancers.

“Talk as much as you can, because there are no dumb questions,” said Christine Hensley, an ovarian cancer patient at the Georgia Cancer Center.

Gynecological cancer is the type of cancer that develops within a woman’s reproductive organs. There are five types including ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer.

Nearly every six minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with some form of gynecologic cancer. That’s a staggering 265 women every day and around 97,000 per year. Hensley first learned she had ovarian cancer in June 2016. She had this advice for women who may be experiencing the same moods, thoughts and attitudes after being diagnosed.

“Stay positive. Be around positive people,” she said. “Join a support group. It will help you immensely to hear stories from other cancer patients. We are all in this fight together.”

Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs, symptoms, risk factors and prevention strategies.

“It is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you, so you can recognize possible warning signs or symptoms,” said Dr. Sharad Ghamande, chief of the Section of Gynecologic Oncology and associate director for clinical research at the Georgia Cancer Center. “If you think you have any warning signs, talk to your doctor, nurse or other health care professional right away.”

What are some of the warning signs or symptoms?

Cervical and vaginal cancers may have little or no early symptoms. However, ovarian, uterine and vulvar cancers usually do show signs. Here are some of the signs that could indicate cancer in the reproductive system for women:

  • Unusual bleeding or bleeding during intercourse.
  • Vaginal discharge that is slightly bloody.
  • Bloating.
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain, or pain during intercourse.
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly.
  • Urinary urgency or frequency.
  • Itching of the vulva that does not go away.
  • Skin changes or persistent sores.

Doctors can use a Pap smear to detect cervical and vaginal cancers. The test can also help women prevent cervical cancer, because it can show cell changes that could become cancer if not treated appropriately.

In addition to a Pap smear, there is a companion test which can detect certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV.) This is important because HPV can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Currently there is a vaccine, which if given early to young women, can help protect them from developing HPV.

If you find yourself diagnosed with one of the types of gynecological cancers, talk with your doctor about seeing a gynecologic oncologist for treatment. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

About the author

Chris Curry

Chris Curry is Communications Coordinator for the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-799-8841 or chrcurry@augusta.edu.