The risk of developing any type of cancer, including tumors that originate in the female reproductive system (gynecologic cancer), increases with age. Therefore, a woman who has gone through menopause - which occurs when her ovaries stop releasing eggs - has a greater chance of developing cancer simply because she is older. Additionally, scientists have linked two key factors with heightened cancer risk after menopause: increased exposure to the hormone estrogen and a higher number of ovulations.
The risk factors explained
In healthy cells, estrogen assists with normal function and growth. But many factors play a role in the development of cancer, and when one or more of these factors are present, estrogen may serve as a "spark" that causes the cancerous cells to grow, multiply and spread faster.
During a woman’s menstrual cycle, estrogen stimulates her breast tissue and uterus. With each menstrual period, these tissues are exposed to additional estrogen. As such, the age at which menopause begins also affects a woman’s cancer risk. Studies show that if a woman experiences late-onset menopause (after age 55), she is at greater risk for developing breast cancer and uterine (endometrial) cancer due to a longer lifetime exposure to estrogen. And because she is menstruating longer, she is also at greater risk for developing ovarian cancer due to a higher number of ovulations.
Gynecologic cancer symptoms can masquerade as menopause symptoms
Some of the symptoms of gynecologic cancers, including uterine, ovarian and cervical cancer, can be very similar to the symptoms of menopause. Therefore, it is important for a woman to pay close attention to her body and promptly discuss any unusual changes with a physician. If cancer is present, this can help ensure an early diagnosis, when there are generally more treatment options available.
Uterine cancer symptoms
The most common symptom of uterine cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. After menopause, any vaginal bleeding is a red flag that warrants prompt investigation by a physician. However, in the several years leading up to menopause (a transition period known as perimenopause), it can be difficult for a woman to distinguish between abnormal bleeding and her normal menstrual periods, which may become irregular during that time. Therefore, after age 45, it is especially important for a woman to pay close attention to any bleeding or spotting between menstrual periods, as well as menstrual periods that are unusually frequent, heavy or prolonged.
Ovarian cancer symptoms
Dubbed the "silent cancer" by many scientists in the general medical community, ovarian cancer often produces only very subtle signs, if any. What’s more, these signs can be easily attributed to menopause, mainly because most ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed after age 50, when menopause typically begins. The symptoms of ovarian cancer can include pelvic pain and bloating, as well as urinary frequency, loss of appetite and early satiety. Occasionally, ovarian cancer also causes changes in bowel habits, extreme fatigue or unexplained weight gain or loss — all of which are common symptoms of menopause.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Cervical cancer symptoms are notorious for mimicking the symptoms of other conditions. Possible signs include abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as after sexual intercourse, between menstrual periods or post-menopause. Other warning signs include menstrual bleeding that lasts longer than usual, abnormal vaginal discharge and pain during sexual activity. With that said, there is an effective screening test for cervical cancer and precancerous changes in the cervix, which can often be detected early in a Pap test. This is why a post-menopausal woman should still be screened for cervical cancer at a frequency recommended by her physician.
Reducing the risk of gynecologic cancer after menopause
After menopause, a woman should continue to take steps to reduce her cancer risk, which include:
- Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- Consuming a nutritious diet
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
Research shows that weight gain after menopause can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer; however, weight loss after menopause can actually reduce her risk.
If you would like to discuss your symptoms with a specialist in the gynecological clinic at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online to request an appointment. We are committed to providing every new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within one day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation.