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Regular Pap Tests May Detect Gynecologic Cancers

Being aware of your body is an important part of your health and overall well-being. By being proactive, you can help beat gynecologic cancer.

According to the Foundation for Women's Cancer and the American Cancer Society, an estimated 98,280 women will be diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer in 2015 – ovarian, uterine, cervical, vulvar, vaginal or tubal – and some 30,440 will die from the disease.

“At-risk women should talk with their doctors about the need for periodic, thorough pelvic exams,” says S. Paul Itam II, M.D., an Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) specialist at Kelsey-Seybold’s The Vintage and Cypress Clinic locations. “Women should start having pelvic exams and Pap smears by age 21, or within three years after having vaginal intercourse for the first time.”

Genetic cancer mutations, called oncogenes, can be acquired through smoking, aging or environmental influences, or you can inherit these mutations from your parents or grandparents. Knowing your family history may increase your chance of early diagnosis and can help you take action toward prevention.

Sometimes, women who are past child-bearing age assume they no longer need regular gynecological checkups and that younger women have a greater risk of developing a reproductive cancer. But often, the risk for these cancers increases with age. For example, the risk for ovarian cancer doesn't peak until a woman is in her late 70s.

Early ovarian cancer may not produce any noticeable symptoms. But if there is anything unusual, such as swelling of the stomach, pressure in the pelvis, or significant decrease in appetite, women should report it to a doctor right away. Also, any bleeding between menstrual cycles or after menopause could be early signs of endometrial cancer and require medical attention as well.

“Even if you feel well, you should see your gynecologist regularly for a well-woman checkup,” Dr. Itam said.

Although a Pap test doesn't detect ovarian cancer, it may detect cancer cells that have migrated to the uterine cervix from the ovaries or the presence of abnormal cells.

“Women who have had a hysterectomy to remove the uterus and cervix may not need annual testing,” Dr. Itam said. “But if the surgery was treatment for precancerous cells or cancer, the woman should continue with annual screening.”

After age 65, women who have had at least three normal Pap tests with no abnormal results in the last 10 years may decide, after speaking with their doctor, to stop cervical cancer screening.

“Women should talk with their doctor about when to begin having Pap tests, how often to have them and when they can stop having them,” Dr. Itam said. “Your OB/GYN can help determine an appropriate screening and prevention program based on your family’s history of cancer and other factors.”

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Paul Itam, MD, FACOG

​I always take a caring and understanding approach to my patients’ needs.​​