Cancer is one of the leading causes of death among women in the United States. Specifically, female cancers, such as breast cancer, are at the top of the list of the most common. Few women actually know, however, the signs and symptoms of breast and gynecologic cancers. Knowing this information could save your life, or that of someone you love.
The Signs of Breast And Gynecologic Cancers Are Often Ignored
Female-specific cancers are one of the leading causes of death for American women. These include breast, ovarian, cervical, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancer. As with all cancers, the early they are diagnosed, the better the outcome will typically be. Unfortunately, the signs of these gynecologic cancers are often missed or ignored until cancer has progressed to more advanced stages. This is why it is critically important for all women to know what the signs and symptoms of these cancers are so that they can catch them for themselves or for someone they know before it is too late. (1)
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Common Symptoms of Gynecologic Cancers
The hard part about many symptoms of gynecologic cancers is that they can also be a sign for a number of other issues, both serious and non-serious. It can sometimes be hard to decide whether what you are experiencing should be of concern to you or if it is just something random and benign. To make things worse, the wide range of pre-menstrual, menstrual, and menopausal symptoms that women experience, differentiating these from cancer symptoms is challenging. Finally, when women do go to the doctor, too often what they are experiencing is written off as menstrual or menopausal symptoms and they are sent away without a proper investigation.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers is just one way you can protect yourself from misdiagnosis or simply just not noticing something is wrong until it is too late. On top of that, it is important that we pay attention to our bodies and what is (at least roughly) “normal” for us. This way, you will notice when something changes, even if it’s just a small change. When trying to identify what changes you should be aware of, these are the most common that are also the most often to be ignored:
Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding and/or Discharge
Women typically don’t have one cycle that is exactly the same as the next. Abnormal bleeding, however, is a common symptom of all gynecologic cancers except for vulvar cancer. This could be heavier bleeding then normal and for a longer period. This could also be spotting, both in the amount of blood and also duration. This is especially important for menopausal women, as bleeding after you’ve already gone through menopause is a symptom of something going on, be it cancer or something else. (2)
Changes to your vaginal discharge can also be a sign of gynecologic cancer. Watery discharge, heavy discharge, or discharge that is pale, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling could all be signs of cancer. If you are at all concerned about your vaginal discharge or periods, talk to your doctor. If you are told that “it is just a normal part of being a woman” without any kind of exam or tests done, go see someone else. (3)
This is a tricky one because bloating can happen for so many different reasons and women tend to experience it pretty regularly as part of their menstrual cycle. Persistent bloating, however, is one of the number one signs of ovarian cancer. Other symptoms similar to this include getting full really quickly or having a hard time eating and back or abdominal pain. If you are experiencing these along with bloating, speak to your doctor.
Pelvic Pain or Pressure
Again, pain, pressure, and discomfort are all premenstrual and menstrual symptoms. Pay attention, however, if this pressure and discomfort seems more than usual, lasts longer, or is occurring out of your regular “period symptom window”. Remember, anytime a symptom is constant or persistent, it could be a sign that something else is going on.
Itching, Burning, and Pain
Where vulvar cancer is concerned, itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva are all potential symptoms of cancer. Also pay attention to a change in color of the vulva or the skin. This could be in the form of a rash, sores, or warts.
Read: How to Eat to Reduce Cancer Risk
Breast Cancer Symptoms
Breast cancer is the most common female-specific cancer in the United States. Women must regularly check their breasts and know what to look for to catch breast cancer as early as possible. Beyond going in for regular mammograms, especially for women over 50 years old, symptoms to be aware of include (4):
- swelling of all or part of the breast
- skin irritation or dimpling
- breast pain
- nipple pain or the nipple turning inward
- redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- a nipple discharge other than breast milk
- a lump in the underarm area
Again, don’t allow doctors to wave you off for any of these symptoms. Many times breast pain will be written off as sensitivity due to the menstrual cycle or a lump as a blocked milk duct for breastfeeding women. If you are told these things without being offered actual tests or exams, go see another doctor.
The Bottom Line: Take A Stand For Your Own Health
The signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers are often easy to ignore because many can be symptoms of other things. We, as women, have also become used to living with pain or discomfort because we’ve been told that this is just part of being a woman with a menstrual cycle. Whether it is cancer or not, we must stand up for ourselves and be advocates for our own health so that we actually get the answers and help that we need. The next time you are at the doctor, pay attention and be sure that they are not just chalking up your experience to your period, menopause, motherhood, or the like. If they refuse to take you seriously, go see someone else. Perhaps your symptoms are benign, but if they aren’t, you will be glad that you stood up for yourself.
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