Healthy Living

Detecting and Treating Ovarian and Cervical Cancer

Mar 9 2023

Public health campaigns have effectively spread awareness about breast cancer in women, but gynecological cancers like ovarian and cervical cancer are important to be on the lookout for as well.

Gynecological cancers include:

  1. Cervical
  2. Ovarian
  3. Uterine
  4. Vaginal
  5. Vulvar

Of the five gynecological cancers, uterine is the most commonly occurring, cervical cancer is the only one that can be prevented through screening and ovarian cancer is the most fatal of the five.

The good news is there are warning signs associated with these cancers that can help you detect them early.

What are the symptoms of ovarian and cervical cancer?

Symptoms of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding after sex, after menopause or between periods. Other symptoms include pelvic pain or pain during sex, periods that are heavier or longer than normal or vaginal discharge that is watery and has a strong odor or contains blood.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include abdominal swelling or bloating (also referred to as feeling full), pelvic pain, frequent urination, fullness or loss of appetite, constipation or other bowel changes. These symptoms may seem commonplace, so it’s vital that you’re aware of other risk factors, such as your family history.

What’s the typical age that women are diagnosed?

Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, with the average age of diagnosis being 50.

However, two-thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are age 55 or older. Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer can increase your risk of developing it at a younger age.

What risk factors increase the likelihood of developing cervical cancer?

The highest risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, about 80 percent of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives but may not even know that they have it.

What risk factors increase the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer risk increases with age. It’s rare for a woman to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer younger than 40, with most cases developing after menopause.

However, it’s also important to understand your family history. About 20 to 25 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary connection to the disease. Inherited genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can contribute to ovarian cancer risk.

Can you prevent cervical cancer?

Yes, you can prevent cervical cancer. Fortunately, the HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

HPV infections and cervical precancers (abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cancer) have dropped since 2006, when HPV vaccines were first used in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination begin at age 9 and before age 26 (ideally before a first sexual encounter). If your teen isn’t vaccinated yet, talk to their doctor about doing so as soon as possible.

Do Pap smears detect cervical cancer?

The second part of protection against cervical cancer is screening. Regular screening through a Pap test (or Pap smear) can help detect any cervical precancer or cancer early on. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends screening begin for all women at the age of 21.

Can you prevent ovarian cancer?

There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, but certain medical choices may lower your chances of developing it:

  • Having a tubal ligation (getting your tubes tied), both ovaries removed or a hysterectomy (an operation in which the uterus, and sometimes the cervix, is removed).
  • Multiple pregnancies, or having the first full-term pregnancy before the age of 26, decreases risk.
  • Some studies suggest that women who breastfeed for a year or more have a reduced risk of ovarian cancer.

Additionally, new treatment options for ovarian cancer patients are being developed that may improve outcomes.

Should you share your family history with your OB-GYN?

Talk to your doctor especially if you have persistent symptoms and/or a family history of ovarian, breast, uterine or colon cancer.

Remember to listen to your body. If you’re experiencing unusual pain, bleeding or bloating that persists for more than two weeks, contact your doctor. Your doctor can perform an exam and recommend any additional diagnostic testing that could aid in evaluating the risk of your symptoms.

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