In virtually all cases, the earlier cancer is diagnosed the more straightforward it is for oncologists to treat. Early detection of the disease frequently results in a better prognosis and a greater chance of achieving a long-term cure. Fostering public awareness regarding the signs and symptoms of cancer is vital, as it can literally mean the difference between life and death for some individuals. At minimum everyone should acquaint themselves with the seven warning signs of cancer! The warnings offered by such organizations as the Canadian Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society alert the public to physical occurrences that could indicate a problem.
In this blog post I aim to go beyond such very universal warning signs and discuss the specific signs of both uterine and ovarian cancer. I will also mention risk factors for each of these diseases. Just a generation or two ago many women suffered in silence, as one’s “female problems” weren’t discussed in polite company. Even today there remains a certain degree of stigma to “below the belt” cancers in both sexes. I acknowledge that embarrassment and a sense of denial, or wishing that my symptoms would just go away, played a role in my relatively late diagnosis. So did my own lack of awareness about the risk factors for endometrial and ovarian cancer.
Sometimes called the disease that whispers, ovarian cancer is the most serious of all gynecological cancers. Over 2600 Canadian women are diagnosed every year; and every year 1750 women succumb to this disease. Symptoms are varied, vague and easily missed and there is no early detection test. Until there is a reliable early screening test for ovarian cancer, awareness remains an essential weapon against the disease.
Ovarian Cancer Warning Symptoms
Swelling or bloating of the abdomen / Pelvic discomfort or heaviness / Back or abdominal pain / Fatigue / Gas, nausea, indigestion / Change in bowel habits / Emptying your bladder frequently / Menstrual irregularities / Weight loss or weight gain
Other symptoms sometimes include a mass or “lump” in your pelvis that you can feel or a sensation of fullness leading to the inability to eat normally. Pain with intercourse or unusual vaginal bleeding (bleeding between periods or the reemergence of bleeding in post-menopausal women) may also occur.
The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. However, the risk of developing ovarian cancer increases as you age—according to Ovarian Cancer Canada 6 out of 10 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are between 50 and 79 years old. The risk for the disease or of getting it a younger age may be increased if you have any of the following:
- Have not had children
- Have not used oral contraceptives
- Have a family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer—About 10 per cent of ovarian cancers are hereditary, or run in the family. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 (or Breast Cancer 1 and 2) genes are involved in most cases of hereditary ovarian cancer. Other cases are caused by a genetic issue called Lynch syndrome.
Uterine cancer is the most common cancer of a woman’s reproductive system. It’s usually easier to diagnose than ovarian cancer, as the symptoms are more obvious and there are standard tests to detect it. A Pap smear can raise a suspicion of uterine cancer and in most cases a biopsy of the endometrium or lining of the uterus can confirm it. Uterine cancer most often occurs in women over 50; the average age is 60.
Uterine Cancer Warning Symptoms
- Unusual vaginal bleeding: Bleeding that starts after menopause or bleeding between periods in premenopausal women / Heavy frequent bleeding before or during menopause / Bleeding with intercourse
- Pain: Pain during intercourse / Pelvic pain or pressure
- Change in bowel or bladder habits: Difficult urination / Pain during urination / Blood in the urine / Pain during a bowel movement or blood in the stool
Hormones, lifestyle and genetics can all play a role in uterine cancer. Longer exposure to estrogen and/or an imbalance of estrogen is a risk factor, specifically for woman who started having their periods before age 12 and/or go through menopause later in life. It is also a risk for those who take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause, especially if they are only taking estrogen; the risk is lower for women taking estrogen with another sex hormone called progesterone. Finally, women who have never carried a pregnancy to term or taken oral contraceptives can be at greater risk for uterine cancer.
Lifestyle issues, such as obesity, have been proven to have a connection. For example, fatty tissue in women who are overweight produces additional estrogen, a hormone known to increase the risk of uterine cancer. This risk increases with an increase in body mass index (BMI; the ratio of a person’s weight and height).
Finally some uterine cancer is likely due to a women’s genetics. Uterine cancer may run in families where colon cancer is hereditary. For instance, women in families with hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), or Lynch syndrome, have a higher risk for uterine cancer.
The information presented in this blog post is well researched and obtained from reliable sources. However, I do not intend the material to be for diagnostic purposes or to replace the advice of a medical professional. If you have concerns regarding your gynecological health, the best course of action is to discuss these issues with your doctor.