From Sarah Coleman, MSN, APRN, advanced practice provider and board-certified women’s health nurse practitioner at OHC

January 23, 2023

The American Cancer Society estimates that every year more than 100,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, a cancer that starts in the female reproductive organs. Gynecologic cancers include cancers of the cervix, uterus, ovaries, vagina, vulva, and fallopian tubes.

Some incidence of gynecologic cancer is on the rise, including cases in younger women. Here are my top five things you should know about gynecologic cancer prevention.

1. Get the HPV Vaccine

My most valuable piece of advice for gynecologic cancer prevention is to get the HPV vaccine because it can dramatically reduce your risk for cervical cancer. A persistent infection with HPV (human papillomavirus), which is transmitted through sexual contact, causes cervical cancer. For most people, the virus becomes inactive on its own. For those whose bodies do not inactivate the virus, it can cause certain types of cancers later in life. I recommend the vaccine for all persons.

The HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, is a safe, well-studied FDA-approved vaccine that helps protect individuals from cancers and diseases caused by nine types of HPV including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, and certain types of head and neck cancers, and genital warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for females and males aged 11-12, but the vaccine may be given to those aged nine through 45. Talk to your pediatrician or primary care doctor about how to get the vaccine.

Using this vaccine, these preventable cancers can become a thing of the past.

2. Have Regular Gynecologic Exams and Cancer Screening

I recommend that PAP smears begin between the ages of 21 through 25, but a young healthy individual should establish a relationship with a gynecologist when becoming sexually active. A gynecologist can be seen at a younger age if someone is experiencing irregular menstruation or needs birth control. Following the initial exam, patients should schedule annual gynecologic appointments for pelvic and breast exams.

It is important to remain up to date on preventative cancer screening guidelines which can be found here: https://ohcare.com/service/cancer-screenings/. The only gynecologic cancer we can currently screen for with a reliable test is cervical cancer. A PAP test looks for changes in cervical cancer cells that may become cancerous if left untreated.

Preventative screening guidelines are advised for individuals based on their sex assigned at birth. A person with female anatomy should follow guidelines for women. A transitioning individual should seek care from healthcare providers who have experience treating transgender individuals.

Report unusual symptoms and maintain a regular schedule of gynecologic exams to reduce your risk of a late-stage gynecologic cancer diagnosis that may be more challenging to treat.

3. Report Unusual Symptoms

Any bleeding after menopause must be evaluated right away as it can be a sign of uterine cancer. Women of menstrual age experiencing irregular bleeding for a couple of months should contact their healthcare provider.

If any of the following symptoms persist for two-to-three weeks, report them to your healthcare provider:

  • New onset of pain or bleeding with sexual intimacy
  • Sudden onset of incontinence
  • Persistent bloating/abdominal distension
  • Changes to appetite or feeling full quickly
  • Unexplained weight loss

Unfortunately, 75 percent of ovarian cancer diagnoses are made in later stages because symptoms are vague and resemble those of more benign conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

4. Know Your Family History

It is important to know your family health history in first, second, and third-degree relatives (parents, grandparents and great grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles, and nieces/nephews) as certain gynecologic cancers can have a genetic component. Be aware of family members who were diagnosed with cancer at a young age and those who have more than one cancer and share this information with your healthcare provider. For more information on the importance of family health history, read our blog: https://ohcare.com/cancer-family-health-history/.

Inherited uterine (endometrial) cancer is commonly associated with Lynch syndrome, a genetic condition that increases the risk of many cancer types. Some ovarian cancer is related to an inherited genetic mutation, specifically to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

OHC offers risk assessment, genetic counseling, and genetic testing to anyone with a family history of cancer through its Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing (GREAT) program. We believe that genetic risk evaluation can help reduce cancer risk by alerting patients if they are carriers and developing a personalized screening plan to promote diagnosis at an earlier stage when treatment outcomes are typically better.

5. Make Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Gynecologic Cancer Risk

While the risk of developing gynecologic cancer typically increases with age, there are some lifestyle changes or choices we can make to reduce our risk.

  • Limit your number of sexual partners and use barrier methods with sexual activity.
  • Maintain a healthy weight by enjoying a healthy diet and staying physically active.
  • Quit smoking.

Through treatment advances over the past 10-15 years and continued education about the importance of cancer prevention, including screening, a future with significantly less incidence of gynecologic cancers is possible. For more information on gynecologic cancers or to request a second opinion with an OHC gynecologic cancer expert, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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