Gynecological Cancers: Screening and Prevention

Cancers of the reproductive system can affect women of all ages. Types of gynecological cancers include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

Of these cancers, only cervical cancer has a specific screening test.

Screenings for cervical cancer

Screening recommendations for cervical cancer depend on a woman’s age:

Age 21 – 29: Women in this age group should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing alone can be considered for women who are 25 to 29, but Pap tests are preferred.

Age 30 – 65: In this age group, women have 3 options for testing. 1) Both a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years, 2) A Pap test alone every 3 years, or 3) An HPV test alone every 5 years.

Over 65: At this age, women who have never had abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer AND have had two or three negative screening tests in a row may stop screenings for cervical cancer.

Preventing cervical cancer

Get the HPV vaccine. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection which normally goes away on its own, but when it doesn’t, it can lead to some forms of cancer, such as cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine can help protect women from cervical cancer and vulvar cancer. The vaccine works best when it is administered before a person is sexually active and exposed to HPV, but it can still offer protection later. The ideal age to receive the vaccine is at 11 or 12 years, but it can be given as early as age 9, or as late as age 26.

Ovarian Cancer: Know the symptoms

Because there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, it’s important to be aware of its symptoms. Early detection increases your chances for effective treatment and recovery.

You can remember ovarian cancer symptoms using the acronym BEAT:

B: Bloating that is persistent
E: Eating less but feeling fuller
A: Abdominal pain
T: Trouble with your bladder

While these symptoms could also indicate other ailments, be sure to let your doctor know if you are experiencing them.

Preventing vulvar cancer

There is no screening test for vulvar cancer (cancer of the vulva). However, you can protect yourself by:

Getting the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine will help protect you against both cervical and vulvar cancers.

Quitting smoking (or not starting). Smoking increases your risk for vulvar cancer and many other cancers.

Knowing the symptoms. Symptoms of vulvar cancer include:

  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Abnormal skin that may be bumpy, smooth, or a different color like white, brown, or red

Uterine/Endometrial Cancer

As with ovarian and vulvar cancers, there are no screening tests to detect this cancer in women without symptoms. That’s why it’s important to recognize symptoms early. These include:

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding (especially in postmenopausal women)
  • Abnormal Pap test results
  • Pain in the pelvic area