Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in the female reproductive organs. The 5 main gynecologic cancers are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar.
Symptoms of these cancers may be difficult to recognize and not register as something to see a health care provider (HCP) about (Table). The symptoms are common and often vague. Many women do not realize anything is wrong, or they mistake the symptoms for other, less serious conditions. That is why it is important to know what is normal for you.
SYMPTOMS YOU SHOULD NOT IGNORE:
- Abnormal bleeding. Abnormal bleeding is a symptom of almost all gynecologic cancers. See an HCP for any vaginal bleeding that is not normal for you, including: Heavier or longer-than-normal menstrual flow Bleeding between periods Bleeding after intercourse Spotting anytime in the menstrual cycle Bleeding after menopause
- Abnormal vaginal discharge. Sometimes infections are to blame for vaginal discharge that is bloody, heavy, and foul smelling. Sometimes, however, this kind of discharge can also mean cervical, ovarian, uterine, or vaginal cancer.
- Frequent urination and other urinary disturbances. Because the female reproductive system is near the bladder and the urethra, tumors or swelling can cause symptoms similar to urinary tract infections—burning or pain with urination, urgency, frequent urination, difficulty urinating, and bladder spasms. Although these symptoms could mean other things, such as overactive bladder, you should promptly report these symptoms to your HCP.
- Unexplained weight loss. Rapid weight loss of more than 10 pounds that is not related to dieting or exercise could mean a number of things, including some form of cancer. Make an appointment with your HCP.
- Constant feeling of fullness or appetite loss. If you have difficulty eating or a constant feeling of fullness, please visit your gynecologist. These could be early signs of ovarian cancer. Ongoing pain or pressure in the abdomen. Do not ignore continual abdominal pain, pressure, or discomfort. These can be signs of ovarian or endometrial cancer.
- Bloating. It is common for women to have some bloating during their period or after eating and drinking. But if bloating or swelling persists for more than 2 weeks after your cycle is over, see your HCP about it because these problems can be signs of ovarian cancer.
- Severe fatigue. Ordinarily, if you are feeling tired or fatigued, a little rest is all you need to recover. However, tiredness that prevents you from working or doing your normal activities could point to ovarian cancer. Do not dismiss constant fatigue.
- Gastrointestinal disturbances. Ongoing digestive problems such as gas, nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation could be signs of a gynecologic cancer. Tumors or swelling can put pressure on the digestive system, which can cause these symptoms. Although there can be many reasons for these symptoms, it is best to report any change in bowel habits or the above symptoms if they last more than 2 to 3 weeks.
- Vulvar or vaginal changes. Lumps, bumps, sores, thickening, and areas of color change should be reported to your HCP. In addition, if you have vulvar or vaginal itching, burning, or bleeding, or unusual discharge, get it checked out, as these can also be signs of cancer or precancerous changes.
- Leg swelling. If you have leg swelling—particularly if one leg appears to be swollen, or feels larger than the other—and you feel pain and have vaginal discharge, this can be a sign of cervical cancer or ovarian cancer.
It is best to try to detect gynecologic cancers early, but, unfortunately, most of the symptoms are late symptoms. If something feels out of the ordinary or lingers, see your HCP. Remember that the above symptoms may not be caused by cancer, but the only way to be sure is to see your HCP.
Beth is a clinical pharmacist and medical editor residing in Northern California.
Gynecologic cancers. CDC website. cdc.gov/cancer/gynecologic/index.htm. Accessed April 25, 2016.
Gynecologic cancer symptoms diary. CDC website. cdc.gov/cancer/knowledge/pdf/cdc_gyn_symptomsdiary.pdf. Accessed April 28, 2016.
Cervical cancer. Mayo Clinic website. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-cancer/basics/symptoms/con-20030522. Accessed April 28, 2016.
Ovarian cancer: take symptoms seriously. WebMD website. webmd.com/ovarian-cancer/news/20040608/ovarian-cancer-take-symptoms-seriously. Accessed April 28, 2016.
Ovarian cancer fact sheet. Womenshealth.gov website. womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/ovarian-cancer.html. Accessed April 25, 2016.
11 symptoms women shouldn’t ignore. RxWiki website. rxwiki.com/feature-article/gynecological-cancer-symptoms-can-be-easy-miss. Accessed April 25, 2016.