As part of their overall health and well-being, women should be vigilant about yearly well-woman exams. In fact, every seven minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with a cervical, ovarian, or uterine cancer. While cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer deaths among women, rates have declined due to prevention and early detection through regular Pap tests.

In conjunction with routine Pap tests, women should also discuss getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine with their physician. A common sexually transmitted infection, HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. However, not all women with HPV infection will develop cancer. Women face an increased risk of HPV infection if they have had many sexual partners or began having intercourse at a young age. Two vaccines have been approved for use in females ages 9 to 26 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The vaccines may reduce a woman’s risk of cervical cancer, but it is important to remember that HPV vaccines cannot eliminate an existing infection.

If found and treated in its early stages, cervical cancer has a very high survival rate, nearly 92 percent after five years. This year alone, 1,219 women in Texas will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.

However, Pap tests do not detect ovarian or uterine cancer, so it is important for women to know their risks and watch for symptoms. In fact, there is no screening test for the two most commonly diagnosed gynecologic cancers – ovarian and uterine. Combined, uterine and ovarian cancers will claim the lives of 1,423 Texas women in 2010.

Without a screening test, it is critical for women to understand their risks and watch for symptoms, which is critical to early detection for both of these diseases. For uterine cancer, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, post-menopausal vaginal bleeding, or pelvic pain.

Common ovarian cancer symptoms include pain in the pelvis or abdomen, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, urinary urgency or frequency, nausea, or fatigue. If a woman experiences persistent symptoms, she should contact a physician.

Treatment for both cancers usually includes surgery to remove the ovary or uterus. Many patients may qualify for minimally invasive surgery, which allows for shorter recuperation times. For more advanced cases, chemotherapy and/or radiation is administered following surgery.

Researchers continue to make advances in the fight against gynecologic cancers.  However, until cures are discovered, regular screenings, awareness, and healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating well and exercising regularly, are among the best tools a woman has to reduce her risk for these cancers.

By Aparna Kamat, M.D.,

Dr. Aparna Kamat is a gynecologic oncologist specializing in minimally invasive surgery at Texas Oncology–McAllen.