Each year, more than 242,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer, and approximately 90,000 are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, such as endometrial, ovarian or cervical cancer.
While the key to effective treatment for breast or gynecologic cancer is early detection, the initial signs are often vague and easily attributed to another, less serious condition. What’s more, only breast and cervical cancers can be detected through routine screening tests, such as mammograms (which can detect breast cancer) and Pap smears (which can detect cervical cancer).
Vigilance is important for women of all ages
Although cancer risk generally increases with age, breast and gynecologic cancers can also occur in women who are relatively young and healthy. Therefore, it’s important for all women to know what to look for—regardless of their age. Here are some signs to pay close attention to:
- Changes in the look or feel of your breasts – Be on the lookout for lumps in your breasts and armpits, as well as changes in your breast skin and nipples. Most breast cancers are self-detected by women during routine activities, such as bathing and shaving.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding – Spotting or bleeding in between menstrual periods or after menopause is a common sign of endometrial cancer. Therefore, if you experience any irregular bleeding, you should talk with a physician right away.
- Unusual vaginal discharge – Bloody, dark-colored or odorous vaginal discharge is a common sign of infection, but it can also be a warning sign of cervical, vaginal or endometrial cancer.
- Chronic pelvic pain – Ongoing discomfort, such as pain, pressure, indigestion, gas, bloating or cramps can sometimes signal ovarian or endometrial cancer.
- Changes in your urinary habits – You may experience urinary urgency or frequency if you are pregnant or if you’ve simply started drinking more liquids. Otherwise, a change in your urinary habits could be a sign of cancer.
- Changes in your appetite – Whether you are never hungry or always full, appetite changes like these can sometimes signal ovarian cancer or another cancer unrelated to your reproductive system.
- Unexplained weight loss – When appropriate, healthy weight loss accomplished through exercise and good nutrition can reduce your cancer risk. However, if you suddenly lose 10 or more pounds without trying, you should see a physician who can investigate the reason. Because cancer cells require energy to fuel their rapid growth, they can cause your body to burn more calories than usual.
- Overwhelming exhaustion – Like most people, you probably feel worn out from time to time, but then bounce back after you get some rest. However, if fatigue is interfering with your daily activities, there may be something more at play than your busy lifestyle.
It’s important to note that most of these symptoms are usually caused by something other than cancer. As a general rule of thumb, you should see a physician for a check-up if you have unusual symptoms that linger longer than two weeks.