Around 100,000 women are diagnosed with a gynecological cancer each year, and over 30,000 will die from them, according to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer. Gynecologic or reproductive cancers include cervical, ovarian, uterine (also called endometrial), vaginal, and vulvar cancers. But some of these cancers can be difficult to diagnose early.
Depending on your age, you might have a Pap smear on a regular basis. This test screens for cervical cancer. For other reproductive cancers, however, women aren’t usually screened on a regular basis.
Additionally, symptoms of gynecologic cancers are often vague and easily misdiagnosed as other health conditions. For example, feeling full quickly and not being able to finish a meal might be attributed to stress, gas or other digestive problems. However, it also may be a symptom of a more severe problem, like ovarian cancer. Many times, symptoms aren’t properly diagnosed until the cancer has spread.
Another factor complicating early detection is that every woman is different. Some might have severe pain with their periods; others might have only mild pain for a day or two and not experience any other discomfort. It’s important to know what is normal for you. How long do your periods typically last? How do you feel before, during, and after your period? Do you typically experience pelvic pain, back pain, or bloating at different points of your cycle? Knowing your body gives you a baseline so that when you notice changes or unusual symptoms, you can make sure to discuss them with your doctor.
It is important to note that many of the potential warning signs for reproductive cancers could also indicate other less serious conditions that are not cancer-related. That being said, make sure to speak with your doctor if you are noticing any of the following 10 symptoms:
1. Bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause
There are several benign reasons you might bleed or spot between periods or after sex. These include fibroids, polyps, hormonal imbalances, side effects of medications, stress, or pregnancy complications. But it can also be a warning signs of uterine, ovarian or vaginal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you experience bleeding for an unexplained reason, it is best to talk with your doctor. Additionally, bleeding after menopause should always be discussed with your doctor.
2. Vaginal discharge
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is normal. You might notice more discharge at certain times, such as when ovulating or if you are breastfeeding. The discharge might be clear or a milky color, and it might have a slight smell. This type of discharge doesn’t usually warrant a visit to your doctor. But if you have vaginal discharge that is dark, is bloody, or has an unpleasant odor, you should talk to your doctor. An unpleasant odor often indicates infection rather than cancer; however, any persistently abnormal discharge is a good reason to seek out medical care to get treatment and be certain it is not early warning sign for cervical, ovarian, uterine or vaginal cancer.
3. Pain in your pelvic area, abdomen, or back
Persistent pain or discomfort in your pelvic area, abdomen or back should be discussed with your doctor. You might notice feelings associated with gas, indigestion, pressure, or cramps, or you might have a dull pain that won’t go away. If it lasts for more than a few weeks, it is time to talk to your doctor to rule out ovarian or uterine cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Many women feel bloated during PMS. They might notice their abdomen looks bigger. This feeling usually goes away when you get your period. When bloating is persistent or makes you feel full after eating a few bites of your dinner, it could indicate ovarian cancer, according to the CDC.
5. Frequent urination
If you suddenly feel as if you need to urinate more often than before without an explanation — such as urinary tract infection, pregnancy or consuming more liquids — it could mean that there is extra pressure on your bladder and be an early warning sign of ovarian cancer. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are also experiencing bloating, pain, or discomfort in your abdomen.
6. Swelling in your leg
One warning sign of cervical cancer is a swollen leg, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Normally it will occur in just one leg and be come with other symptoms, such as pain, bloating, or vaginal discharge.
7. Skin changes on your vulva
The vulva is the external genital area. If you notice changes such as lumps, bumps, spots, sores, rough patches, or a darkening of the skin on your vulva, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible because these can be signs of vulvar cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Your doctor will examine the area and may request a biopsy.
8. Changes in menstruation
It is important to know what is normal for you when it comes to your period. Pay attention to how long your period lasts and how many days it is heavy. Endometrial cancer can cause heavy periods. If you notice your periods suddenly become heavier, tell your doctor to make sure it is not a warning sign of cancer.
9. Itching, burning or pain when urinating
A urinary tract infection and some STDs, such as herpes, can cause itching, burning, or pain when urinating. However, these can also be signs of vulvar cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
When you are tired, it is easy to blame your hectic life. But if the fatigue lasts for several weeks, even after getting a good night’s sleep, it could signal that something else is going on. While fatigue can come with many other health problems, it also can be an early warning sign of cancer.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.