In a recent conversation with my mother, I was surprised to find a history of cancer on both sides of my family. I’m fairly young, but wondered what kind of cancer prevention action should I be taking? When would I have to start screening? Answers came to me by way of Elise Everett, MD, gynecologic oncologist, associate professor in the UVM Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, and member of the UVM Cancer Center.
Her recent interview on WCAX’s Across the Fence taught me a little more about cancers that effect women and made me very interested to learn more!
I thought gynecologic cancers only had to do with breast and ovarian cancer, but learned the term also includes cervical, fallopian tube, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
There are some preventative screening measures, like mammograms that screen for breast cancer, or pap smears that screen for cervical cancer. Unfortunately, not all gynecologic cancers have screenings, but there are certain things we can do to be proactive about prevention and detection.
Gynecologic Cancer Prevention Tips
The first is to be knowledgeable about family history (check!).
The second is to examine your lifestyle. The abnormal genes that cause cancer can be genetic, but they can also be acquired through your daily life or by just getting older. While we can’t avoid aging, we can protect ourselves from things like excessive UV exposure, smoking cigarettes, or having unprotected sex. The human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause a few types of cancers, so protecting yourself with the vaccine is important to consider as well. (And, I learned, it’s important for boys to consider, too.)
Now for some scary news: ovarian cancer is the most deadly of all the gynecological cancers. There is no screening test for ovarian cancer – and unlike breasts, where you might find lumps, your ovaries are internal, and the symptoms for ovarian cancer are vague. Really vague. Like feeling bloated, changes in bowel habits, or feeling full before you’ve eaten a full meal. I started to panic, because all of these “symptoms” happen to me with some frequency. To test myself I forced myself to eat about two portions of linguini, and I still was not full. Test successful.
Dr. Everett says the key to detection in the case where there are no screening options is to know yourself. Everyone is different, and everyone has a different “normal.” Take serious stock of your body and if things feel consistently, persistently off – tell your primary care physician.
The key to all of this is education, education, education. Ask questions. Know your body, know your family, and learn all that you can about preventative measures. To this end, I was glad to learn from Dr. Everett that there will be a free, all-day education event on October 7 – the 19th Annual Women’s Health and Cancer Conference, hosted by the UVM Cancer Center. I plan to be there with my notepad in hand!
To learn more, or to register for this free event go to www.vermontcancer.org.
Jacqueline Lawler is a communications/events specialist and proud millennial. She loves all things theatre, performing arts, and to cook Italian food.