ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, which brings attention to cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
It’s also a month to bring attention to the importance of getting your HPV vaccine and screened for these types of cancers.
News 8’s Ally Peters sat down with Dr. Sajeena Geevarghese, the Executive Medical Director for Gynecologic Oncology at Rochester Regional Health, to discuss these important topics.
What are the most common types of gynecologic cancers you see in women?
“Some of the most common gynecologic cancers are cervical cancer, uterine cancer, fallopian tube cancer, ovarian cancer, so it’s cancers of the reproductive tract,” Geevarghese said. “Almost 30,000 women are diagnosed and die, actually die, from a gynecologic cancer every year, and most of those cancers are preventable.”
Geevarghese said more than 4,200 women died of cervical cancer every year and each death is preventable.
How can you prevent these cancers? Why is getting an HPV vaccine important?
“The HPV virus is actually what causes cervical cancer. It’s actually a cause of a lot of vaginal vulvar cancers, head and neck cancers, penile and anal cancers. And so we’ve figured out that there’s an actual virus that leads to cancer, and we can prevent it,” Geevarghese said. “But the key thing is you actually have to get the HPV vaccine prior to any sexual exposure. So that’s key. So ideally, boys and girls should be getting it at 11 and 12, prior to any sexual touching. Exposure doesn’t have to be penetration or intercourse.”
She adds that you can get the HPV vaccine up until the age of 45.
Another important step in preventing cancer is screening. What should people know about that?
“For cervical cancer, there is screening. We do Pap test or pap smears, we do pelvic exams, and oftentimes, we can diagnose pre-cancers, and intervene and diagnose things early.” Geevarghese said. “What’s heartbreaking for me is I see women all the time who have had a history of an abnormal pap smear, but never followed up. They never followed up and so by the time they see me, they have abnormal vaginal bleeding, they have pain, and then finally one of their friends, somebody else tells them you need to go see the doctor.”
“Then, here I am telling a woman looks just like us, who’s been busy in life taking care of their kids, taking care of their husband, taking care of the family, going to work, and then just never made their own health a priority…I’m diagnosing them with an advanced cancer.”
When should people get screened for cancer?
Geevarghese said screening can start at the age of 21. She stresses it’s also very important for people to get a pelvic exam.
“If you have an issue, vaginal bleeding, the most common symptom of endometrial cancer, which is the most common gynecologic cancer, it can be caught early. It’s often diagnosed at stage one, and it’s curable. But if you put it off, now we’re talking about stage three,” Geevarghese said.
Geevarghese recalled a story of a woman she saw a couple years ago who had vaginal bleeding for months but put off seeing her doctor because she had summer vacation plans.
“She had a great summer and then saw her doctor and was diagnosed. We thought it was an early grade endometrial cancer. She sees me… I say, ‘no problem. We’re going to do surgery. It’s often curable.’ The one thing she told me is, ‘I want to make it for my son’s wedding.’ I said, ‘this is months away, no big deal. We’ve got this.’ I did her surgery and it ends up being a stage three. Now we’re talking about chemotherapy. Now she’s talking about my hair loss at the time of my son’s wedding. She does make it to the wedding. But as she’s there, she has some pain. And so she sees me after the wedding and I diagnosed that the cancer has come back. Months later she dies.”
“So yes, she had a great summer, sure. But now you’re talking about a husband and three kids who are just completely devastated by the loss of their mom, that could have been preventable.”
What are symptoms of some of these cancers?
Geevarghese said symptoms of ovarian cancer include vaginal discharge, bleeding, pain and bloating. She said it’s important that if you have these symptoms, you go and see a doctor.
She also said not to worry about shaving or cleaning before you get screened. Doctors just want to see you and make sure you’re healthy.
“You don’t need to shave. It doesn’t need to smell like a flower, just go for your exam,” she said. “People talk about, ‘I’m gonna treat myself, I’m gonna get my nails done, I’m gonna get my hair,’ like I want people to think, ‘maybe I should go for my exam.’”
To learn more about gynecologic cancers and important resources, click here.