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Things women should know about gynecologic cancer

If you have gynecologic cancer, or if you’re worried about getting it, this information may help you get started. Here, you’ll find quick checklists of common symptoms, ways to prevent or detect gynecologic cancer early, and ways to take charge of your care if you are diagnosed with the disease.

7 common symptoms of gynecologic cancer that women should know

Many women are unaware of the symptoms of gynecologic cancer, especially symptoms that are unrelated to the reproductive organs. As with most cancers, the earlier gynecologic cancers are found and treated, the better. The following are some common gynecologic cancer symptoms to look for:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Pelvic pain or pressure
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating
  • Changes in bathroom habits (increased urination, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Itching or burning of the vulva
  • Changes in vulva color or skin (rash, sores, warts, ulcers)

5 ways to help prevent gynecologic cancer or detect it early

Although there is no guaranteed way to prevent gynecologic cancer, some ways to reduce your risk of getting gynecologic cancer, or to help detect it early, include:

  • Know your body. Symptoms of gynecologic cancer can be difficult to recognize. It’s important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you have any symptoms that persist for two weeks or longer and are not normal for you, talk to your doctor.
  • Protect yourself from HPV. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that don’t go away increase the risk of getting several types of gynecologic cancer. Talk to your doctor about getting the HPV test and ask about the vaccine, which protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Also, limit your number of sexual partners and when you do have sex, use a condom.
  • Get regular Pap tests. Pap tests, which can find precancerous changes on the cervix, are one of the most reliable and effective cervical cancer screening tests available. All women aged 21-65 should get regular Pap tests as directed by your doctor.
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices. Maintaining a healthy weight and staying active can help reduce your chance of getting certain gynecologic cancers, including uterine and ovarian cancers. Also, smoking is a risk factor for cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Make sure to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, avoid smoking and practice safe sex.
  • Know your family health history. If you or someone in your family has a history of ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend genetic testing and counseling. While genetic testing is not recommended for all women, it can help some women learn if they have an increased chance of developing ovarian, breast, and/or uterine cancers.

7 tips to take charge of your care when you have gynecologic cancer

Each woman deals with gynecologic cancer differently. One thing is certain for all women: you’ll need help from an experienced team of cancer specialists. And, since your needs are unique and will likely change throughout treatment, you’ll want to work cooperatively with your cancer team to get your needs met. Here are some general tips to help you take charge of your care:

  • Educate yourself. Try to learn as much as you can about your cancer type, treatment options, possible side effects, and available support. The more you understand about your diagnosis, the better equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions about treatment.
  • Choose your cancer team carefully. Find a hospital that has experts in your form of cancer, including gynecologic oncologists, and advanced technology to diagnose and treat the disease. You may want to get a second or third opinion before beginning treatment. Most doctors understand the value of a second opinion when facing major decisions.
  • Explore fully-integrated treatment. Gynecologic cancer and its treatment can affect all aspects of your life. You’ll need support to manage side effects, stay strong and maintain your quality of life. Make sure your cancer team includes clinicians from many different disciplines who collaborate on a regular basis to address your entire well-being.
  • Communicate openly with your doctors. Be open with your doctor about how you’re coping and any new symptoms you may be experiencing. Ask ahead of time about the testing or procedures you’ll need and how you can prepare for it. Make sure you understand next steps before leaving your doctor's office.
  • Ask questions. During your appointments, ask questions and clarify what you don’t understand. It helps to write down your questions ahead of time. If your doctor uses terms you don’t understand, ask him or her to explain it in another way. Whenever possible, bring someone with you to appointments. Here are some questions you could ask:
  • What is your experience with treating my type and stage of cancer?
  • What is the most accurate diagnostic testing available to me?
  • What are all the treatment options for my cancer?
  • How long will I have to undergo treatment?
  • What happens if an approach doesn’t work for me?
  • What other clinicians will be involved in my care?
  • Where will all my treatments, appointments, tests, etc. take place?
  • What side effects may I expect from treatment? How can I reduce or manage them?
  • Who is my main point of contact for questions and support?
  • What support services are available for patients and families?
  • Address any fertility concerns. If you have concerns about fertility, talk with your doctor about how your treatment is likely to affect your fertility and learn about fertility-preserving options before treatment begins. Ask about available fertility resources and referrals, such as reproductive endocrinologists, sperm banks, financial assistance, and adoption agencies.
  • Build a support system. It is natural to experience emotional distress after a gynecologic cancer diagnosis. Aside from family and friends, consider sharing your feelings and concerns with other gynecologic cancer survivors. You may also decide to ask for referrals to psychological, financial, and/or spiritual support resources.
  • Schedule follow-up visits. Once you complete treatment, schedule follow-up visits to identify any changes in your medical condition. During these visits, your doctor will use diagnostic tests to monitor for any evidence of cancer recurrence.  You can also get advice for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. These appointments may occur more often at first and then less frequently.
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