Why knowing the 3 S’s - symptoms, screenings and shots - can make a difference
“As hard as it can be to talk about cancer, the discussion can get even tougher when it comes to cancers of the gynecologic organs,” said Kevin D. Stocker, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist, UVA Obstetrics & Gynecology, a department of Novant Health UVA Health System Culpeper Medical Center.
He points out that there is often a stigma around open discussion of women’s cancer. And the secrecy, shame, and/or embarrassment can mean the signs and symptoms may go unnoticed or even ignored.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 100,000 new cases of gynecological cancers each year in the U.S. And in 2019, more than 33,000 women died from these types of cancers.
To start this much-needed conversation within our community, Stocker has shared his 3 S’s of gynecologic oncology: symptoms, screenings and shots.
When it comes to cancer treatment, early detection is key, Stocker said. It’s important for women to know what symptoms should prompt an evaluation.
“Abdominal bloating, feeling too full after eating, swelling of the abdomen, and consistent abdominal pain can be symptoms of ovarian cancer,” he said. “Bleeding after intercourse, bleeding between periods, post-menopausal bleeding (bleeding after menopause), back or flank pain and pelvic pain are symptoms associated with cervical cancer. Post-menopausal bleeding is also a common symptom of endometrial cancer.”
“When evaluating symptoms at home,” he added, “it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, you should schedule an appointment with your gynecologist or primary care provider.”
Often a simple screening test will be used to detect cervical cancer or find something that may be considered precancerous. The Pap test is a cervical cancer screening test which involves collecting cells from the cervix and examining them under a microscope. These should start at 21.
“It is very important to have regular Pap tests so precancerous cells can be identified and treated before they progress to cervical cancer,” Stocker said. “The majority of cervical cancer is caused by what is referred to as the human papillomavirus (HPV). Fortunately, the same cells collected for the Pap test can also be used to test for HPV.”
He added that it is also important to know having a pelvic exam is not the same as having a Pap test.
HPV testing can be added for women age 30 and older. Unfortunately, there are currently no proven screening tests for ovarian or endometrial cancers. In patients who have a strong family history of gynecologic cancers, genetic counseling may be pursued and there may be a discussion of screening in high-risk women.
Dr. Stocker’s third “S” comes in the form of a simple shot. The HPV vaccine is FDA approved to help prevent HPV-related diseases including cervical cancer. HPV is transmitted through sexual intercourse making exposure very common. Early vaccination is the best way to safeguard yourself from the virus. Many patients do not realize that the HPV vaccine is approved up to age 45. The HPV vaccine has been proven to be safe and is recommended by medical professional societies.
In addition to vaccines, Stocker recommends condom use and the avoidance of tobacco to help prevent cervical cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise can also help prevent the most common types of uterine cancers.
Stocker added that any concerning finding or symptom should be brought up to your provider.
“It’s time to stop tiptoeing around the subject of gynecologic cancer,” Stocker said. “My hope is that women feel empowered to learn more and to take an active role in monitoring all aspects of their health.”
For more information on women’s services offered across Novant Health UVA Health System, visit NovantHealthUVA.org/women.