This Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, experts are encouraging women to make themselves and their loved ones aware of the signs, symptoms and available screenings for these cancers. Unique to the female anatomy, all women are at risk for gynecologic cancer. That risk increases with age, family history (of breast, ovarian, uterine or colon cancer), obesity and certain genetic mutations.
“The best way to fight against gynecologic cancer starts with you – know what’s normal for your body, learn the warning signs and partner with your health care team,” Allison Staley, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center explains. “While we don’t have approved screening tools for many types of gynecologic cancer, we believe that education and outreach arm women with knowledge to listen to their bodies and catch these cancers at their earliest and most treatable stages.”
What is gynecologic cancer?
Gynecologic cancer describes a group of cancers that affect the female reproductive system. These cancers include cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. More than 100,000 women are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers each year. “There are many promising treatment options for women who are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers,” Dr. Staley highlights. “These treatments are most effective when we begin care at the earliest stage possible. That’s why it is so important for women to educate themselves about these cancers so they can be alert to any signs.”
Listen to your body
In addition to keeping up with annual visits to the gynecologist and primary care doctor, women also should be paying attention to the messages their bodies might be giving them. Dr. Staley highlights five specific symptoms of which women should be mindful.
- Unusual bloating
Most women will experience bloating (an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the abdomen) from time to time. Often, feeling bloated is the result of an overindulgence or coincides with your monthly cycle. However, when bloating is persistent and doesn’t go away—especially when coupled with weight loss— it’s important to talk to your doctor. “Bloating can be a sign of many different conditions, including ovarian cancer,” Dr. Staley details. “There’s no need to panic if you are experiencing ongoing bloating, but you should make a visit to your provider a priority. There, you can discuss this symptom and what might be causing it.”
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
If you are experiencing ongoing feelings of pelvic discomfort, pressure, dull aching or pain during intercourse, don’t ignore the sensations. Early-stage gynecologic cancers, especially ovarian and uterine cancer, sometimes cause these feelings. Talk to your doctor if this pain doesn’t subside within two weeks.
- Changes in bathroom habits
Women who have been diagnosed with gynecologic cancers often report recent changes in their bathroom habits. It might be more frequent urination or an increased urgency to urinate. Constipation also may be a symptom. Know what’s normal for your body and when something feels different, talk to your provider about it.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
“Abnormal vaginal bleeding is common to all types of gynecologic cancers except vulvar cancer,” Dr. Staley clarifies. “For women who are premenopausal, this might look like longer, heavier periods or bleeding in between your cycles. For women who have gone through menopause, any type of vaginal bleeding should be noted and discussed with your doctor.”
- Changes in the vulva
Specific to vulvar cancer are physical changes in the vulva (the external part of a female’s genitals). This can include itching, burning, pain or tenderness in the area. It also might affect the color of the skin and/or a rash, sores or warts. “While some women might feel embarrassed to discuss these changes, it is vitally important to bring these to your provider’s attention as soon as possible,” Dr. Staley encourages.
Screenings and preventative care
While most gynecologic cancers do not have a recognized screening tool, cervical cancer does. Most women are familiar with this test—the Pap smear. Experts recommend all women should have a Pap test starting at age 21, regardless of sexual history. Women ages 21-29 should have Pap tests every three years. Women ages 30-65 should have a Pap test every three years or every five years when coupled with an HPV test.
Another way to fight gynecologic cancer is to get the HPV vaccine. This vaccine protects against infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which are a group of 200 related viruses, 40 of which are spread through sexual contact. About a dozen types of HPV cause certain types of cancer including cervical, vulvar and vaginal. Since 2016, the vaccine has been approved for use in the United States and is recommended at 11 or 12 years. It also can be given to anyone through age 26 who has not been vaccinated. For those ages 27 and older, discuss the vaccine with your provider. It often is less effective after age 26 because most people already have been exposed to the virus.
“Over the last several decades, we have learned more about gynecologic cancers, warning signs, tests and ways to prevent these diseases,” Dr. Staley encourages. “We want to spread this knowledge to all women so they can arm themselves to live healthier tomorrows.”
Learn more about gynecologic cancer treatment at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish Medical Center.
Allison Staley, MD, MPH is a board-certified, fellowship-trained gynecologic oncologist. She earned her Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees from the University of North Carolina (UNC). She went on to complete her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, followed by fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the nationally recognized UNC Women's Hospital. Dr. Staley was expertly trained in a broad range of surgical techniques. She has extensive experience and a particular interest in minimally invasive surgery, including the robotic surgery platform.
As a part of Rocky Mountain Gynecologic Oncology, Dr. Staley offers personalized, leading-edge care for women faced with cervical, fallopian tube, ovarian, uterine, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. Her background in public health has given her a strong foundation in research, keeping her at the forefront of new evidence-based treatment options. In partnership with the Sarah Cannon Institute, she aims to provide patients with greater access to clinical trials and groundbreaking care, close to home.
Patient education is a core focus of her care. Dr. Staley believes in partnering with her patients and their families to help them understand their diagnosis, treatment options and long-term outlook. She acts as a guide for her patients, ultimately empowering each woman to make the best treatment choices for her lifestyle, needs and health goals. She serves as a member of national committees with the Society of Gynecologic Oncology and the Foundation for Women's Cancers, with interests in nutrition, physical activity, survivorship and end-of-life care.
As a part of a multidisciplinary team of experts, Dr. Staley works closely with referring providers and other experts within the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute to provide comprehensive options for her patients care plans.