Cancer in Women: Take care of yourselves first
By: By LAURA CAMPBELL, MD
Thibodaux Regional Cancer Center Oncologist
Many women spend much of their time taking care of the needs of their families. In many cases women put themselves last when they pursue healthcare, thinking they are healthy and spending the often finite financial resources on care for their children, parents and spouse. Symptoms are just brushed aside, suffered through, and put up with, month after month and sometimes year after year until it is too late.
Prevention is the best medicine, and this applies to preventing cancers that are unique to women or to detecting them early when cancer is most curable.
The most common cancers unique to women include breast, ovarian, uterine and cervical cancers.
Breast cancer is one hundred times more likely to occur in women than men, although it does occur in men. If we can detect a cancer so early that it is curable, we can prevent symptoms or death from it.
Screening offers a chance to detect a cancer early when it is most curable.
Mammography is a good screening test for breast cancer; but monthly self-exam and annual exam by your doctor is also part of screening. A nodule that a woman or doctor can feel in a woman’s breast is very important, even if it does not show up on a mammogram.
If a woman feels a nodule in her breast or if her breast becomes red or swollen and does not clear up in a few days, she should see her doctor about this right away. MRIs are indicated only for those with high risk of breast cancer, such as those with inherited genetic abnormalities.
The best cancer screening to detect cervical cancer is the Pap smear. One can detect non-cancerous changes early and, once treated, a cervical cancer does not occur. Actual prevention, even of these pre-cancerous changes, occurs when the cervical cancer vaccine is given before one is sexually active.
Recognizing symptoms of cervical or uterine cancer is important and these include unusual vaginal bleeding often without pain or discomfort. If these symptoms occur, one should see their primary care doctor or gynecologist as soon as possible.
Ovarian cancer presents with vague symptoms and is a cancer for which there is not yet a good screening test. By the time a trans-vaginal ultrasound can detect an ovarian cancer, it is usually incurable by surgery.
A lab test called the CA-125 elevates in ovarian cancer and can be used to follow such patients, but it is not a good screening test, as it elevates in non-cancerous conditions.
A woman must listen to her body and if she has persistent bloating, vague discomfort, or swelling of her abdomen she should see her doctor. A large family history of ovarian cancer is the biggest risk factor for ovarian cancer and this should evoke a visit to one’s doctor.
Information regarding one’s own risk of these cancers can be found by discussing such information with your doctor or at several websites including the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov), National Comprehensive Cancer Network (www.nccn.com), or Up To Date (www.uptodate.com).