Cancer may not be on your radar, especially if you’re relatively young and healthy. But it should be, regardless of your age or family history.
Each year, nearly 90,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, such as endometrial (also known as uterine cancer), ovarian cancer or cervical cancer. More than 242,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Most of these cancers occur in women after menopause. But gynecologic cancers can strike women before menopause, too.
"Your risk for all cancer types rises as you age, but it’s important to know what to look for at any age," says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center. "That way, if symptoms appear, you can tell your doctor right away."
The signs of cancer, particularly gynecologic cancers, can be vague and similar to those of other conditions. Only breast and cervical cancers can be detected through screening. So recognizing these symptoms and talking about them with your gynecologist or primary care doctor can increase your odds of finding cancer early, when it’s most treatable.
Here are 10 cancer symptoms that every woman should be on the lookout for.
1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding. More than 90% of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer experience irregular bleeding. If you have already undergone menopause, any bleeding — spotting included — should be evaluated. Haven’t gone through menopause yet? See your doctor if you experience bleeding between periods, heavy bleeding or bleeding during sex. This can also be a sign of cervical or vaginal cancer.
2. Unexplained weight loss. If you’re overweight or obese, losing weight by exercising and making healthier food choices can actually help curb your cancer risk. But if you suddenly lose more than 10 pounds without changing your diet or exercise habits, talk to your doctor.
3. Vaginal discharge colored with blood. Bloody, dark or smelly discharge is usually a sign of infection. But sometimes, it’s a warning sign of cervical, vaginal or endometrial cancer.
4. Constant fatigue. A busy week can wear anyone out. But in most cases, a little rest should cure your fatigue. If fatigue is interfering with your work or leisure activities, stop blaming your hectic life and see your doctor.
5. Loss of appetite or feeling full all the time. Never hungry? Appetite changes may be symptoms of ovarian cancer or other cancers not related to the reproductive system.
6. Pain in the pelvis or abdominal area. Ongoing abdominal pain or discomfort — including gas, indigestion, pressure, bloating and cramps — can signal ovarian or endometrial cancer.
7. Changes in your bathroom habits. Suddenly need to urinate all the time or feel constant pressure on your bladder? Unless you’ve started drinking more liquids or you’re pregnant, this may be a sign of cancer.
8. Persistent indigestion or nausea. Occasionally, persistent indigestion or nausea can signal gynecologic cancers. Play it safe, and see your doctor if you feel queasy more often than usual.
9. Change in bowel habits may be a sign of something externally pressing on the colon. This could be any advanced stage gynecologic cancer or other cancers.
10. Changes in your breasts. Most breast cancers are detected by women themselves during routine daily activities like bathing, shaving or even scratching. Be alert for lumps in the breast or armpit. Also be on the lookout for changes to the skin on your breasts, changes in the look and feel of your breasts, and abnormalities in the nipples. Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer. But if they last two weeks or longer, see your doctor to get yourself checked out.