Life is a balancing act for many women today.
Between an active family, aging parents and a demanding job, they hardly have time for themselves. So it’s easy to brush off symptoms such as weight loss, fatigue or irregular bleeding.
“Symptoms often evolve gradually, so they are easy to discount,” said Charles Harrison, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center. But many can be signs of the most common gynecologic cancers: endometrial, cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.
Dr. Harrison listed 10 symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored. If you see yourself on this list, call your gynecologist or primary care doctor.
1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
You may think: I’m young, so it’s not unusual to have heavy periods. Or, I’m postmenopausal and I don’t know what to expect at this age. Or, I only have bleeding after sex, so it couldn’t be that important.
You should know: Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge at any age could be a sign of several kinds of cancer. It’s the most common symptom in women with endometrial cancer. And bleeding after sex or between periods could be a sign of advancing cervical cancer. In older women, it could mean vulvar cancer.
2. Unexplained weight loss
You may think: Lucky me. I just lost 10 pounds without even trying.
You should know: If you lost weight without changing your diet or exercise habits, you should see your doctor. Unexplained weight loss can be a sign of many medical problems, including cancer.
3. Can’t stay away from the bathroom
You may think: Wow, I always feel like I have to “go.” Maybe it’s all the water or coffee I’ve been drinking. Or, I feel like I should have a bowel movement, but can’t. Could it be constipation?
You should know: Continuous bladder or bowel pressure could be a sign of ovarian, cervical or, less commonly, vaginal cancer.
4. A bloated belly or pain in your pelvis or abdomen
You may think: That’s inconvenient. It’s time for an antacid or ibuprofen. Jeans are too binding, so I’ll stick to sweats and yoga pants for a while.
You should know: Ongoing issues with gas, indigestion, bloating, cramps or pressure could be a sign that ovarian or endometrial cancer has spread into the abdomen. Almost everyone with ovarian cancer has bloating that comes on suddenly or bloating that comes and goes over time.
5. Constant fatigue
You may think: I wish I could take a nap under my desk. Guess I should start going to bed earlier.
You should know: If fatigue is interfering with your work, your family or your fun, you should get it checked out. It could be caused by anemia due to bleeding, or sleep problems due to pain. Fatigue is linked to many gynecologic cancers as well as other medical disorders and malignancies.
6. Swollen leg
You may think: That’s odd. One of my shoes doesn’t fit right and my leg feels stiff. Time for more exercise.
You should know: Having one swollen leg is sometimes worse than two when it comes to cancer symptoms—especially if it develops over a short period of time. Dr. Harrison noted that an ovarian mass can put pressure on your pelvic wall or cervix and interfere with the flow of blood. In one case, a patient saw him because her feet were so swollen that her Christmas slippers didn’t fit. As it turned out, she had a 50-pound ovarian mass. Fortunately, in this case, it was benign.
7. No appetite or a feeling of being full
You may think: I’m just a little “off” lately. Nothing sounds good—not even chocolate. And my middle is getting bigger.
You should know: Changes in your appetite could signal ovarian cancer or endometrial cancer. If you had to switch to stretchy pants, but you haven’t been eating more, get it checked out.
8. Feeling queasy, having nausea or fighting indigestion
You may think: I always feel like I’m on the verge of the stomach flu. It must be stress.
You should know: If your stomach feels upset for a long period of time, it could be a sign of a gynecologic cancer. You should get it checked out. Some women with cancer may develop a partial bowel obstruction, which means their stomach empties too slowly, their tummies get bloated and they develop reflux symptoms with gastric acid backing up into the esophagus.
9. Vulva problems including color changes, itching or burning
You may think: I must be using a harsh detergent, or maybe I should switch to cotton “grandma” panties.
You should know: Changes in vulva color or skin, like a rash, sores or warts, could signal vulvar cancer. So can itching, burning or a lump. These issues shouldn’t be ignored. Vulvar cancer is most common in older women.
10. Pain in the pelvis, abdomen or back
You may think: Am I getting old? I shouldn’t be hurting like this.
You should know: Unexplained pain can be a symptom of many cancers, including ovarian, endometrial, cervical or vulvar. It shouldn’t be ignored.
Keep in mind that having these symptoms doesn’t mean you need to panic, said Dr. Harrison. But it does mean you should check it out.