Experts say ignoring certain signs would allow a cancer to grow and possibly spread
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Any change in your gynecologic health could indicate you need medical attention, experts say.
While many women fear certain symptoms could indicate cancer, Martha Ryan, American Cancer Society senior director of community engagement Western New York, said that overall, “the signs and symptoms of gynecological cancers can also be indicative of other non-cancerous diagnosis.”
Or, if they turn out to be unimportant, a doctor’s visit would bring peace of mind.
“It’s also vital to note that women with early cervical cancers and pre-cancers usually have no symptoms,” Ryan said. “Symptoms often do not begin until the cancer becomes invasive and grows into nearby tissue.”
Ryan added that at this stage, the most common symptoms include:
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, and having (menstrual) periods that are longer or heavier than usual. Bleeding after douching or after a pelvic exam may also occur.
• An unusual discharge from the vagina. The discharge may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
• Pain during sex.
Though attributable to other health conditions, cancer could cause these symptoms and ignoring them would allow the cancer to grow and possibly spread. Waiting until a more advanced stage may “lower your chance for effective treatment,” Ryan said.
She encourages women to receive regular Pap smears and pelvic exams to check for any irregularities.
“Receiving the HPV vaccine can actually prevent most cervical cancers,” Ryan said. “The HPV vaccine should be given to boys and girls beginning at the age of 12. This vaccine is a three-dose vaccine and should be given prior to sexual activity.”
Signs for endometrial cancer present few symptoms until it’s advanced. Most women experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, which may include bleeding between cycles or after menopause. Though abnormal bleeding may occur for other reasons, it’s still a good idea to get it checked, and for women who have undergone menopause “it’s especially important to report any vaginal bleeding, spotting, or abnormal discharge to your doctor,” Ryan said.
“Non-bloody vaginal discharge may also be a sign of endometrial cancer. Even if you cannot see blood in the discharge, it does not mean there is no cancer. In about 10 percent of cases, the discharge associated with endometrial cancer is not bloody. Any abnormal discharge should be checked out by your doctor,” Ryan said.
Other endometrial cancer signs can include pelvic pain from a tumor and unexplained weight loss.
Irregular bleeding could also indicate uterine sarcoma, another type of cancer, especially for women who have already experienced menopause.
“This symptom is more often caused by something other than cancer, but it is important to have a medical evaluation of any irregular bleeding right away,” Ryan said. “Of the uterine sarcomas, leiomyosarcomas are less likely to cause abnormal bleeding than endometrial stromal sarcomas and undifferentiated sarcomas.”
Again, discharge is usually associated with a non-cancerous condition; however, it’s still important to receive an exam to stay on the safe side.
Other symptoms could include pelvic pain, a palatable mass, or a feeling of fullness, but only about 10 percent of women experience these feelings.
Ryan said that signs of ovarian cancer can include several symptoms, but it’s more likely if the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. The signs may include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, feeling full, urinary urgency, and urinary frequency.
As with the other types of cancer, signs of ovarian cancer can also indicate non-cancerous conditions
“When they are caused by ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and represent a change from normal,” Ryan said. “For example, they occur more often or are more severe. If a woman has these symptoms more than 12 times a month, she should see her doctor, preferably a gynecologist.”
Ovarian cancer may also be accompanied by fatigue, upset stomach, back pain, pain during sex, constipation, menstrual changes and abdominal swelling with weight loss. But since many women experience these symptoms unrelated to ovarian cancer, medical tests are the only way to determine if that’s the cause.
“Women need to know their body and if something is not normal, they need to pursue it with their medical provider to find out what is going on,” Ryan said. “Women need to have regular GYN appointments and receive the recommended screenings.”
Usually, just one symptom isn’t as troubling as presenting several symptoms.
“The combination of losing weight, yet feeling bloated and having abdominal enlargement is worrisome,” said physician Faye Justicia-Linde, clinical assistant professor, department of obstetrics and gynecology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo and a physician with UBMD Obstetrics-Gynecology. “Feeling full after eating very little is also concerning.”
She added that changes in bowel function, such as developing chronic constipation or more frequent diarrhea, could also represent symptoms that indicate cancer, as could any change in urination pattern (frequency, incomplete emptying, leakage, blood, pain with urination).
“It is still unlikely to be due to cancer, but any persistent discomfort should be checked out and can be treated,” Justicia-Linde said.
In addition to receiving their pelvic exams and Pap smears, David Kurss, board-certified, obstetrician-gynecologist and founder Women’s Wellness Center in Buffalo, encourages women to perform a monthly self breast exam while lying flat, not only in the shower.
“Any mass, especially if not on the other side, any leakage from the nipple, or swelling under the arms or collarbone area, should be seen,” Kurss said.
Providers won’t judge you for having suspicious symptoms checked. In fact, Kurss said at least one patient each day who thinks a symptom in the breast or vaginal region may be cancer.
“It’s always best to err on the side of caution,” Kurss said.