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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.

Every year, more than 100,000 women are diagnosed with and treated for gynecologic cancer – including cancers of the uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, vagina, vulva, and endometrial lining – and some 32,000 women die from the disease. But more screenings are leading to early detection, and research is providing more advances in treatment than ever before.

“At-risk women should talk with their doctors about the need for periodic, thorough pelvic exams,” says Paul Itam, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN specialist at Kelsey-Seybold. “Women should start having pelvic exams and Pap tests 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 the risk for these cancers often 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 that require medical attention.

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

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,” says Dr. Itam. “But if the surgery was treatment for precancerous cells or cancer, they 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.​​