Every year more than 260,000 women are diagnosed with breast and gynecological cancers in the U.S. And many of those women will have their gynecologists to thank for catching the disease in its early stages with cancer screenings and exams.
Cold Spring gynecologist Dr. Stephen Hensley is one of those specialists who are on the front lines of the fight against breast, uterine, ovarian and cervical cancers at St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
"Mainly, the No. 1 cancer I see is breast cancer. In fact, one in seven women is going to have it in their lifetime, so it’s very common," he says, referring to the 190,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the U.S. annually.
"The next most common type of cancer would be uterine, with about 40,000 women affected annually. Then ovarian cancer, which affects about 20,000 women, and then cervical cancer, affecting about 10,000 women each year. And most gynecologists see all of these types," Hensley says.
The key to beating cancer of all types, of course, is early detection. The good news on that front is that many gynecological cancers can be detected early, Hensley says, and the key to that early detection is knowing and responding to the signs and obtaining regular screenings for cervical and breast cancers.
Cervical cancer is best detected through annual Pap smears, starting at age 21, or within three years after you first have sex. As far as preventing cervical cancer, girls and young women ages 9 to 26 can now get the HPV vaccine to prevent one of the main causes of cervical cancer. All women can reduce their chances of acquiring the disease as well by refraining from smoking, limiting their number of sexual partners and using condoms during sex.
There are no simple tests for uterine cancer, so it’s important that women tell their doctors as soon as they notice anything that seems like a sign of the disease. These early symptoms include vaginal bleeding that is heavier than normal or that comes between periods or after menopause. Some women also experience pain or pressure in their pelvises. Although there are no known ways to prevent the disease, some steps lower your chances of getting uterine cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These steps include:
Using birth control pills
Maintaining a healthy weight
Asking your doctor about progesterone therapy if you’re taking estrogen during menopause
Ovarian cancers are trickier than most others to detect and prevent, Hensley says, which also contributes to their much higher fatality rate. Early signs of the disease also can mimic other health problems, Hensley says, but women should still be aware of what those signs are and see their gynecologists if they experience them.
"Ovarian cancer signs include bloating, cramping, constipation and weight gain, which are really kind of vague things that many women experience anyway, so it’s difficult," Hensley says.
Fortunately, there is one relatively new tool that is helping in the fight against this most deadly gynecological cancer, as well as breast cancer. Women who have relatives in their immediate families who have had breast or ovarian cancer are at higher risk of the diseases, Hensley says. But those women can now be tested for the gene that predisposes them to such cancers, and doctors then can take special precautions to catch or arrest the disease in its tracks.
"It’s called the BRCA gene … and if you have that, you’re more likely to have breast and ovarian cancer," Hensley says. "So we can do a gene study, and if you’re positive for the gene, we know you’ll need a lot higher surveillance … that test has really sort of changed the playing field, as it relates to ovarian and breast cancer, for a lot of doctors."
At St. Elizabeth Healthcare, women not only can obtain the latest available genetic testing — including BRCA testing — but they also can enroll in a complete program of genetic counseling to assist in making the best decisions for each individual’s specific situation.
St. Elizabeth is also a top provider of all screening services for breast cancer — including the latest digital mammography at all of their Northern Kentucky locations — to help women age 40 and older to quickly and confidently obtain their recommended annual mammograms.
Photo courtesy of St. Elizabeth Healthcare