I considered myself a pretty well-educated person when it came to periods, sex, and common ailments like UTIs. I got the Gardasil vaccine as a kid. I went to the gyno annually for a pap smear. But when it came to gynecological cancer, my blind-spot was immense.
Gynecological cancers include:
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Each of these cancers has its own distinct warning signs and symptoms, so it is important to know the differences between them. In the same vein, knowing your body well enough to tell when something is wrong is so vital. Pay attention to the smell, color, and texture of your vaginal discharge regularly. It isn’t weird. It isn’t gross.
Pay attention to pain. Where it is, the intensity, if it is triggered by anything, the sensation (sharp, dull, constant, etc).
Learn the sensations of your body. Get a sense of what normal is.
Finally, try to develop a good relationship with your doctor. Honestly, this one will be harder to do.
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A Good Doctor
Many doctors have dismissed women’s pain or opinions before, and systemic racism influences how medical professionals perceive women of color, making it harder for them. But the importance of finding a trusted doctor now, while you’re healthy, will ensure you have an ally, an advocate when the time comes. Someone who will listen and take you seriously, and, who is familiar with your medical history already.
Good doctors are hard to find, but once you find one who makes you comfortable, who explains things well, that can make the difference in the long run.
Pap Smears, Pelvic Exams, and Prevention
Just like you are supposed to visit your doctor annually for a physical, you should see your OBGYN once a year for a pelvic exam. If you’re under twenty-nine, it is also recommended a Pap smear be done once a year too. Above twenty-nine and a Pap smear should be done every other year–but a pelvic exam is still recommended yearly.
So regardless of your age, you should be going to your gynecologist regularly once a year.
And if you’re not sure what a Pap smear or a pelvic exam is, fear not!
A Pap smear is a test your gynecologist does with a speculum, a long, thin instrument inserted into the vagina. The doc checks your vulva and cervix and takes a small sample of cells in the cervix to test for any abnormalities that could become cancerous.
A yearly pelvic exam can be done at the same time you have a Pap smear. The doctor checks that everything is okay with the ovaries, uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and bladder. It is a strange sensation to feel your doctor touch your ovaries, but it isn’t painful, and it only lasts seconds.
Going to the gynecologist regularly is an important preventative measure to take to ensure your long-term health. The sooner cancer is caught, the better chances there are of remission, and that’s true of gynecological cancers.
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Visiting the Doc
If a Pap smear or a pelvic exam seems daunting to you, don’t worry. You might be worried about what the doctor will think about what your most intimate body parts. There’s no reason to shave or wax before a gynecologist appointment, but if it makes you more comfortable, you can do that.
“Many people forget or are unaware that the OB/GYN is a primary care specialty,” says OB/GYN Dr. Alice Roberts. “At annual exams, we perform a great deal of preventive health screening that is specific to women.”
In addition to a Pap smear and pelvic exam, the doctor will also do a breast exam and teach you how to do one yourself. This is to make sure there are no lumps on your breast that can be cancerous.
There are many reasons to see your doctor that have nothing to do with cancer screenings. It’s a chance to screen for STDs. A trip to the OBGYN is also a chance to talk about birth control, whether you’re thinking about starting something, want to report unwanted side effects, or have any questions. You can also talk about sex, pain, or menstrual cycle.
An appointment with a gynecologist encompasses so much more than a Pap smear. The reproductive system is so vast and brings its own problems only an OB/GYN can help with.
Cervical cancer is super famous, and the most well-known. It’s why we get a Pap test annually. The Gardasil vaccine is partly-meant to prevent girls from acquiring HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line. The good news is that this cancer is the most preventable of all gynecological cancers.
Cervical cancer doesn’t present any symptoms until it has progressed greatly. That’s why Pap smears are important. It is a cancer screening test, testing cervical cells for any abnormality. Once it has been detected early, there’s a great chance it can be treated.
When the cancer has progressed deep into the cervix and other pelvic regions, that’s when symptoms will become visible. Warning signs are:
- Vaginal discharge
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Vaginal odor
As you can see, these symptoms are pretty vague and have a lot of overlap with other conditions. That’s the importance of a good gynecologist who will take your concerns seriously. Who won’t brush anything off, but investigate thoroughly whenever you voice the slightest concerns.
Ovarian cancer is deadly. The symptoms to look out for are:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary changes such as going frequently
One survivor of ovarian cancer, Tiffany, shared her story. She wrote about vomiting in her sleep as the indicator something was very wrong. She visited a gastroenterologist she had already seen, but the doctor dismissed her concerns and said she had trouble digesting food. She went to a new gastro immediately. That doctor felt her stomach, ordered a CT scan and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Ladies, trust your guts. If a doctor doesn’t take you seriously, find a new doctor. Keep searching until you find an answer that satisfies you–even if it’s the worst diagnosis imaginable. It’s better to know and get on the correct treatment plan.
UTERINE (OR ENDOMETRIAL) CANCER
Unfortunately, symptoms of this cancer are rare. The most common one is abnormal vaginal bleeding. It is very important to note that bleeding at any point of menopause, even spotting, or brown discharge, is abnormal and you should go to the doctor immediately.
But, this doesn’t mean that menstruating women are not at risk, either. If your bleeding volume suddenly changes, or you’re bleeding at other times of the month that isn’t usual spotting, speak to your doctor. It may be a sign that shouldn’t be ignored.
Vaginal cancer can be linked back to HPV, another reason the Gardasil vaccine is so important. Like cervical cancer, the vaccine also prevents vaginal cancer. It is alike with cervical cancer in another way: symptoms do not present until it is very serious.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Problems with urination or bowel movements
- Watery vaginal discharge
- Lump or mass in the vagina
Gynecological Cancers and Awareness
As you can see, there is a whole slew of symptoms for different gynecological cancers. Some of them are the same, but others are unique. By getting tested regularly and talking with your doctor, you can protect yourself and be better empowered to make decisions about your reproductive health.