Let's face it - a woman's body is mysterious. It bleeds and discharges and cramps and swells and gets exhausted.
Sometimes these things are perfectly normal, and sometimes they are not. They could be signs of cancer.
"Unfortunately, because symptoms for these cancers are often vague, many women mistake them for other less serious conditions,” said Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Prevention Center.
"So, it’s important to know exactly what to look for because gynecologic cancers are usually most treatable when found early,” Dr. Bevers said.
11 symptoms you don't want to ignore
1. Swelling in one leg. If one leg appears to be swollen or feels larger than the other and you feel pain and have vaginal discharge, this can be a sign of cervical cancer.
2. Irregular vaginal bleeding. Uterine cancer usually shows up with some sort of abnormal bleeding. This can include bleeding in between periods, heavy menstrual flow or bleeding during sexual intercourse.
Women who have undergone menopause should have no bleeding at all - including spotting.
"Endometrial cancers manifest with bleeding," Ernst Lengyel, M.D., Ph.D, professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, told dailyRx. The endometrium is the inner lining of the uterus.
"So any bleeding in menopause is suspicious for cancer until proven otherwise. Therefore most endometrial cancers are detected in stage I," Dr. Lengyel said.
3. Frequent urination. If you find yourself always having to go to the bathroom or feel bladder pressure, this could be a signal of cancer. It could also mean other things, such as overactive bladder. Get it checked out by your family doctor or gynecologist.
"Frequent urination is a symptom that sometimes indicates a mass pushing on the bladder," says Dr. Lengyel, who is an expert in diagnosing and treating gynecologic malignancies--specifically, ovarian, cervical and endometrial cancers.
4. Weight loss without dieting. See your doctor about any rapid, unexplained weight loss of more than 10 pounds that's not related to a change in diet or exercise. This could mean a number of things, including some form of cancer.
5. Bloody vaginal discharge. Usually an infection is to blame for vaginal discharge that's bloody, dark or smells bad. Sometimes, though, this kind of discharge can also mean cervical or uterine cancer.
6. Appetite loss or constantly feeling full. If you aren't feeling hunger or have a constant feeling of fullness, please visit your gynecologist. These could be early signs of ovarian cancer.
7. Ongoing pain or pressure in the abdomen. You don't want to dismiss continual abdominal pain, pressure or discomfort - including indigestion, gas, bloating and cramps. These can be signs of ovarian or endometrial cancer.
8. Feeling bloated. It's not unusual to feel bloated after eating or drinking, particularly during your period. But if you are feeling bloated for more than two weeks and/or after your cycle is over, you'll want to get this checked out. These are signs of ovarian cancer.
9. Serious fatigue. Normal fatigue is remedied with rest. However, being so tired that you don't feel like (or can't) go to work or do your normal activities - including having some fun - could mean cancer is lurking somewhere in your body. Don't dismiss constant fatigue.
10. Ongoing indigestion or nausea. Have you been feeling like you're going to throw up or just have an uneasy stomach for a while? Digestive problems such as these could be a sign of a gynecological cancer.
11. Genital bumps and itching. "Vulvar cancer can manifest with a raised lesion and itching and bleeding," says Dr. Lengyel.
By the way, the vulva is all of your external sexual organs including the labia, clitoris and vestibular bulbs (bulb-like area surround the clitoris).
When to seek help
"Any symptom that does not resolve should be worked up by a gynecologist and/or an internist as they could have NON-gynecologic reasons," says Dr. Lengyel.
Who to see
Dr. Lengyel says you'll want to go to a gynecologist for any of these symptoms:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Vaginal discharge with blood
- Constant need of bathroom breaks
- Pain or pressure in abdomen
- Ongoing bloat
"Being constantly tired is an indirect sign but has many other reasons that again might require an internist to evaluate," Dr. Lengyel suggests.
"The bottom line is that we are trying to detect women’s cancers early, but unfortunately most of these symptoms are LATE symptoms and patients and physicians should be vigilant."
Finally, you know your body better than anyone. If something doesn't feel right, or a problem lingers, go see a doctor.
It may be nothing serious and what a relief that will be to know!