Cancer Screening and Prevention
Gynecological cancer includes cancer of the cervix, uterus, ovaries, vagina and breast. While these diseases often cannot be prevented, early detection is essential in receiving successful treatment. Regular screenings are important for patients of any age. While certain people may be at a higher risk than others, undergoing screenings for gynecological cancer helps ensure proper treatment in the event of a diagnosis.
Breast Cancer Screening
Breast cancer affects a significant number of women each year. It is the second-most-common cancer, and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Most breast cancers are slow-growing, but there are types that are aggressive, which is why early detection is essential. Breast cancer screenings are the best way to detect breast cancer in its early stages. The most common screenings are mammograms and doctor-performed clinical breast exams.
Official recommendations are that, starting at 20 years old, a woman should have a clinical breast exam every three years. At 40 years of age, a woman should have a yearly clinical breast exam. The second recommendation is for a screening mammogram, but there is some dispute about the age at which women should start getting them, and how frequently. A woman should check with her doctor to determine her best course of action.
It may also be beneficial for a woman to examine her breasts once a month, usually about a week after her menstrual period. This can help her identify any changes or abnormalities such as a lump, swelling, irritation or pain.
Breast MRI Scan
A breast MRI (magnetic-resonance imaging) scan is a noninvasive diagnostic imaging test that produces multiple cross-sectional images of the breast to help screen for breast cancer. An MRI scan is performed after a mammogram, and may be helpful in staging breast cancer. This procedure can detect breast abnormalities including cysts and hematomas.
Endometrial Cancer Screening
Endometrial cancer is a type of uterine cancer that develops within the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus. It accounts for more than 95 percent of uterine cancers. Endometrial cancer can usually be treated if detected during its early stages.
Signs of endometrial cancer include prolonged periods, vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain. If endometrial cancer is suspected, a number of tests will likely be performed to rule out other conditions, or to determine the extent of the disease. These may include:
- Vaginal ultrasound, using sound waves to check the size of the uterus and the thickness of its lining
- Endometrial biopsy, which involves removing a small amount of tissue from the lining of the uterus
- Hysteroscopy, a procedure using a slender, light-transmitting scope to view the inside of the uterus
- Dilation and curettage (D&C), during which tissue is scraped or suctioned from the inside of the uterus
Cervical Cancer Screening
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers to affect women. It develops in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus that forms the canal that opens into the vagina. Cervical cancer is often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is passed from person to person through genital contact, usually during vaginal or anal sex. Most women infected with HPV will not get cervical cancer, and treatment is usually successful when the disease is discovered in its early stages.
HPV is often detected by a Pap smear, which is conducted every 1 to 3 years during a regular gynecological exam. The Pap smear identifies cell changes or abnormalities, which may lead to cervical cancer. Regular tests monitor these changes and identify them as soon as they occur.
HPV infections have a higher risk of developing into cervical cancer in women who over 30, even though infections occur more frequently in younger women. While some strains of HPV go away with time and do not cause long-term damage, it is important to undergo regular screenings to for infection and detection of cervical cancer.
Ovarian Cancer Screening
Women can be screened for ovarian cancer when they undergo their annual pelvic exam, which helps detect any abnormalities or changes to the ovaries. Women considered at higher risk for ovarian cancer should discuss the best methods of prevention with their doctor. Early detection is essential for effective treatment.
While ultrasound and other diagnostic procedures can detect abnormalities within the ovaries, there is no universal screening test for ovarian cancer. The pelvic exam does not distinguish between ovarian cancer and benign ovarian cysts, so women may need to undergo a surgical procedure in order to further diagnose and treat any abnormality that has been detected.