Foreknowledge is a powerful weapon against serious illnesses. Many life-threatening medical conditions can be easily treated and eradicated if caught early. That’s where cancer screenings come in. For example, pap smears, colonoscopies and mammograms have saved many people from colon cancer and breast cancer.
When it comes to gynecological health, the Pap smear is the gold standard for detecting cervical cancer. The incidence of cervical cancer in the United States dramatically dropped once pap smears were included with annual exams. At Innovative Women’s HealthCare Solutions, Dr. Melinda Miller-Thrasher encourages all of our patients to come in for Pap smears regularly to detect the presence of cervical cancer way before you have symptoms.
Here’s what she wants you to know about gynecological cancers and how to watch out for them.
Cervical cancer is the only type of gynecological cancer that can be accurately detected by a screening. The Pap smear, which is a simple swab of your cervical tissue, is recommended for women starting at age 21. Once you reach 30, it’s a good idea to get tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV) along with your Pap smear until you’re 65, at which point you can stop unless certain conditions exist. Speak with your healthcare provider to see what pap smear screening schedule is right for you.
Of course, if you’re in a high-risk category for cervical cancer — you have HPV, you’ve had previous abnormal Pap smears, your mother took diethylstilbestrol (DES) when she was pregnant with you, or you smoke — you should have a Pap smear yearly.
While there’s no screening for vaginal cancer, two-thirds of the time it’s caused by the HPV virus, so getting tested for HPV along with your Pap smear is important. There’s also a vaccine available to prevent the HPV virus, so you may be able to prevent this particular type altogether.
Vaginal cancer is treatable and curable, especially if caught early while still contained within the vagina. It starts with benign precancerous cells that allow Dr. Miller-Thrasher to treat the problem before it spreads or refer you to a gynecological oncologist.
The skin around the opening of your vagina can get cancer, too, and once again, the HPV virus is often the culprit. The most common type of vulvar cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which grows on the surface cells, just as it does on other parts of your skin. About 90% of the women who get vulvar cancer get squamous cell carcinoma, and it’s highly treatable in its early stages.
A small percentage of vulvar cancer is melanoma. Again, this type mimics the growth patterns of melanoma on other parts of your skin — and it’s aggressive and deadly if not treated.
You’re at a higher risk of developing vulvar cancer if you have a weakened immune system, have contracted HPV or HIV, have had precancerous skin cells detected, or have vulvar skin conditions like lichen sclerosus.
NOTE: Women who only see a general practitioner, a family practitioner or an internal medicine doctor are more likely to get examined from the waist up. Dr Miller-Thrasher warns against ignoring or bypassing your gynecologist visit. “Your gynecologist has been trained to visually recognize abnormalities in the vaginal and vulva tissues. She has seen several cases of vulvar and vaginal cancers in women who went many years without being thoroughly checked in these areas by an experienced provider.
Ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women and the fifth most deadly. Again, there’s no screening test for this type of cancer, but you may be able to find out if you’re at a higher risk.
Unfortunately, ovarian cancer does not have distinct warning signs, which is why it is characteristically is diagnosed at later stages and harder to treat. Dr. Miller-Thrasher can perform a ROMA test, a blood test which can indicate the likelihood a pelvic mass is malignant.
Nearly a quarter of ovarian cancer cases are linked to a gene mutation, so genetic testing may reveal whether you carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which increase your risk for both ovarian and breast cancers. Your chances also go up if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, are overweight (BMI over 30), had children late in life, or have endometriosis.
Also known as endometrial cancer, uterine cancer is unpredictable. There’s no screening for it, and even if you’re in a high-risk category, you may never get it, just as low-risk women can end up with it as well. Vaginal bleeding can be the earliest sign of this easily treatable cancer. This is another reason why women should be questioned by their health care provider about abnormal uterine bleeding or post menopausal bleeding.
NOTE: ANY BLEEDING FROM THE VAGINA AFTER MENOPAUSE IS ABNORMAL AND MUST BE EVALUATED-IT IS NOT THE RETURN OF YOUR CYCLE!!!
In the absence of a screening test for uterine cancer, it’s important to know the risk factors, which include:
- Starting your period before age 12
- Starting menopause after age 50
- Taking hormone replacement therapy with estrogen only
- Family history of cancer
Researchers believe estrogen plays a key role in the development of uterine cancer, which is why starting menstruation early in life and ceasing it later in life are potentially problematic, because you’re exposed to estrogen longer.
Staying gynecologically healthy
Pap smears and mammograms are essential for monitoring your gynecological health and catching precancerous conditions so you can treat them early and increase your chances of survival. For those cancers with no screenings, the best way to approach them is to know your risk factors and get tested regularly. If you have any abnormal bleeding, bloating, or pelvic pain, come see us right away.
Dr. Miller-Thrasher comes alongside you to help you navigate your gynecological health, and can let you know which conditions you need to watch out for based on your health history, age, weight, and lifestyle.
To get on the right track, contact an Innovative team member at either of our two locations in Smyrna and Atlanta, Georgia, or request a consultation online today. It could be the most important appointment of your life.