Could menopause symptoms mean cervical cancer?
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and it's important to be aware of the similarity between menopause symptoms and the symptoms of cervical cancer and to discuss any symptoms with your physician as well as get regular checkups.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cervix, which is the lower end of the uterus. According to the American Cancer Society, about 14,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States. While it is one of the most common types of gynecologic cancer, it can be detected through regular Pap and HPV tests and treated before it advances.
It is important to note that as you get older your risk for gynecologic cancers also increases. Additionally, the symptoms of cervical cancer can be very similar to many menopause symptoms. This means that it's important to not rely on symptoms only but to get checked regularly.
How age increases your risk for gynecologic cancers
As we age, our risk of developing gynecologic cancers increases. Although cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, the average age at diagnosis is 50. Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age. More than 20% of cervical cancers are found in women 65 years of age or older; however, these cancers rarely occur in women who have been getting regular tests to screen for cervical cancer before they were 65.
It's important to be aware that cervical cancer can mimic other conditions. Many of the symptoms of cervical cancer can be mistaken for other conditions, such as menopause. Possible signs of cervical cancer include abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as after sexual intercourse, between menstrual periods or post-menopause; menstrual bleeding that lasts longer than usual; abnormal vaginal discharge; and pain during sexual activity.
Fortunately, there are effective screening test for cervical cancer and precancerous changes in the cervix, called a Pap test (also known as a Pap smear) and HPV testing. A pap smear looks for abnormal cells in the cervix that can lead to cancer. An HPV test looks for the human papillomavirus, a virus that can cause cervical cancer. In recent years, HPV testing has been found to be more accurate and more reliable than pap tests. One or both of these tests are recommended for women over the age of 21 and those at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. These tests can help detect early signs of cancer, which can make treatment more effective and improve the chances of a successful outcome.
How can I prevent cervical cancer?
While there are some risk factors for cervical cancer that cannot be controlled, such as age, family history, and HIV or HPV infection, there are other risk factors that can be modified. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer, so if you smoke, you should consider stopping in interest of your health. Obesity has also been linked to a higher risk of developing many cancers. Obesity may also negatively affect the overall survival of a woman with cervical cancer. Many studies have shown a reduced rate of cervical cancer in women who ate a diet high in vegetables or a low-fat diet, but other studies disagree. The best advice is to follow a healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and that limits or avoids red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods. In addition to following these lifestyle habits, women should also schedule regular pelvic exams, HPV tests and Pap smears to screen for early detection of abnormal cells.
The importance of early detection
Every January, we recognize Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a time to remind women of all ages about the importance of gynecologic health. While cervical cancer can affect women of all ages, the risk increases with age. Never ignore changes in your body and if you're experiencing anything that doesn't seem right, talk to your doctor.
Once detected, there are many different types of treatment you and your doctor should discuss. Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery to remove the affected cells, or even hysterectomy are all used to remove cancer and keep it from spreading. Early detection of cervical cancer can make all the difference. Early detection means early treatment, and early treatment means you can prevent cervical cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.
Being aware of the risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer and taking proactive steps to reduce your risk of cervical cancer empowers you to take control over your health. Take a moment this month to schedule a Pap test/HPV test and remind your loved ones to do the same.