Ovarian cancer has earned the named "the silent killer" because its symptoms often go unnoticed, leaving it to be detected at a later stage, when treatment is less likely to be effective. And while ovarian cancer is a frightening and sometimes fatal diagnosis, it's not the only gynecological cancer with symptoms that are often ignored.
"Many gynecological cancer symptoms are easily overlooked because they're so commonplace," explains Lauren Turker, MD, gynecologist with Main Line Gynecologic Oncology at Lankenau Medical Center. "Symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation could all easily be attributed to everyday health concerns, so many women are quick to brush them off."
"Many of the symptoms of gynecological cancer are easily overlooked because they're so commonplace. Symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation could all easily be attributed to everyday health concerns, so many women are quick to brush them off."
- Lauren Turker, MD, gynecologist
But brushing these symptoms off could have life-threatening consequences.
Gynecological cancer symptoms you shouldn't ignore
Although the majority of gynecological cancers can be easily treated, the effectiveness of treatment depends on how early the disease is found. Although symptoms can vary for each individual, the most common gynecological cancer symptoms include:
- Vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Abdominal pain or bloating
- Changes in bathroom habits, like constantly needing to go to the bathroom, constipation or diarrhea
- Itching or burning of the vulva
- Changes in vulva color, or vulvar sores or rash
These might be accompanied by other, less obvious symptoms, too.
"Feeling full, loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, and fatigue are other side effects that can be easy to overlook," says Dr. Turker. "These can be indicative of other cancers and conditions, too, but when they're accompanied by symptoms like those listed above, they can be a sign of gynecological cancer."
How to prevent gynecological cancer
Although there is still room for improvement for gynecological cancer screenings, there are steps that women can take to prevent cancer. The HPV vaccine, which girls can receive as young as nine years old and up to age 26, protects the body from cervical cancer. Pap smears, which are conducted beginning at age 21, also protect against the disease.
Still, even as new screenings and diagnostic tools are developed, it's important to remain aware of changes in your body, says Turker.
"The most important tool in preventing cancer is your intuition," she says. "If you feel that something's not right, or you notice changes in your body, talk to your primary care doctor or OB/GYN about your concerns. If cancer—or any disease—is caught early, it's easier to treat."