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Protect Your Health: Don't Wait, Schedule Your Well-Woman Exam Today!September 8, 2023
September is National Ovarian and Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month – the perfect time to schedule your well-woman exam and any preventive health screenings that are due.
Gynecological cancers refer to cancers affecting the female reproductive system. There are distinct signs, symptoms, and risk factors for each type of gynecological cancer, including hereditary factors. All women are at risk for gynecological cancers; that risk tends to increase as we age.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 106,000 women in the U.S. will receive a gynecological cancer diagnosis in 2023. While there are several categories of gynecological cancers, our focus is ovarian cancer, which includes cancers of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and in rare instances, the primary peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue that lines the pelvis and abdomen).
The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer vary from woman to woman, and may include:
- General abdominal discomfort or pain
- Nausea, diarrhea, constipation or frequent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Unusual fatigue
- Pain during sex
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Bloating and/or a feeling of fullness, even after a light meal
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Back pain
- Menstrual changes
Experiencing these symptoms does not always mean you have ovarian cancer. If any of these are new symptoms, if they persist for longer than a few weeks, or if they occur frequently (more than 12 times a month), it’s important to discuss them with your doctor.
What are the risks for ovarian cancer?
There are several known risk factors that increase a woman's likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. These include:
- Age: Women older than 50 are at higher risk.
- Family history: Especially if a woman has a first-degree relative who has had ovarian or breast cancer.
- Genetic factors: This includes genetic mutations such as those in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
- Never having children: Pregnancy and childbirth can have a protective effect, and women who have never given birth are at higher risk.
- Other risk factors include: Early onset of menstruation or late onset of menopause, hormone therapy, obesity, and smoking.
Not everyone with risk factors gets ovarian cancer. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your healthcare provider. It is also worth noting, anything that stops ovulation for a time may lower the average woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.
How is ovarian cancer diagnosed?
Ovarian cancer often presents no signs or symptoms, and there are currently no routine screening exams to detect this disease at its earliest stages. That’s why it’s important to schedule regular check-ups with your healthcare provider.
The following testing and diagnostic options are also available, which may help:
- Pelvic examination to check for any abnormalities or masses in the ovaries;
- Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, MRI or PET scan to help detect any tumors or cysts;
- Blood markers to assess the levels of certain proteins associated with ovarian cancer;
- A biopsy, if any abnormalities are detected, and
- Genetic testing in cases where there is a family history or suspected hereditary factors.
Take advantage of National Ovarian and Gynecological Cancer Awareness month as a reminder that looking after yourself isn't selfish. In fact, it can save your life! Know your body, pay attention to symptoms, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if something doesn’t feel quite right.