First things first: You need to see your gyno every year so she can track any changes in your health, no matter how small they seem. As for everything else, we know this: The sooner cancer is identified, the better your chances of beating it. Fortunately, the screening tools we do have are affordable. Pap smears are covered by most insurance plans and Medicare, and are also available at government-assisted clinics like Planned Parenthood. Use this info to stay proactive.
Cervical, Vaginal, and Vulvar Cancers
The screening: Pap smear.
When to get it: Women should have their first Pap smear at age 21. The official recommendation is to repeat it every three years until age 65, as long as it’s normal.
You should know: If you’re under 26, you can ask your doctor for a “catch-up” HPV vaccine. Once you turn 30, your gynecologist can add on a test that detects the specific cancer-causing types of HPV; if both your Pap and HPV test are normal, you can go as long as five years between screenings—but you need to be comfortable with that time frame, so be sure to discuss it with your doctor.
The screening: None.
But: Most cases of uterine cancer occur once a woman is in menopause. That said, unusual bleeding, at any age, should be reported to your doctor.
You should know: “Unexplained bleeding doesn’t have to be significant,” says Ginger Gardner, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and spokesperson for the Foundation for Women’s Cancer. “I don’t care if it’s brown, light pink, red, a tiny bit of spotting or a lot—please mention it to your gynecologist.”
The screening: None.
But: Consider genetic testing if you have a family history of certain cancers (see below). Ovarian cancer can happen at any age, but most cases occur between the ages of 55 and 64.
You should know: Watch for new symptoms, including unexplained abdominal pain or bloating, loss of appetite, and an urgent or frequent need to pee. “These symptoms are easily confused with GI problems,” says Carmel Cohen, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and chair of the Gynecologic Cancer Advisory Group for the American Cancer Society. “But if you experience them almost daily for two to three weeks, schedule a time to see your doctor.”
Should You Consider Genetic Testing?
You’ve probably heard about BRCA1 and BRCA2, two genes that can significantly increase your risk for breast and ovarian cancers—Angelina Jolie famously tested positive for one of them in 2013. Unfortunately, they’re not the only concerns when it comes to gynecological cancer. “Approximately 24 genes have been associated with a greater chance of developing ovarian cancer alone,” says Joy Larsen Haidle, past president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. That’s why it’s so important to discuss your personal and family history with your doctor. Dig deep, too: It’s not only women’s cancers that matter—research suggests that a history of any number of diseases, like colon and pancreatic cancers, may increase your risk, Haidle notes. The good news is that genetic testing, if it’s warranted, can provide useful information that will help you and your doctors decide whether you need more frequent screenings or even preventive surgery like Jolie’s. “This knowledge can also inform and empower your sisters, daughters, and other female relatives,” Haidle says. So book that appointment.
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