You’ve bandaged her skinned knees, taught her how to ride a bike, proofread her English papers, and been her shoulder to cry on. You’ve held her hand after surgery, hung pictures in her new apartment, and listened.
Being the parent of a daughter is full of opportunities to nurture, love, and care. It’s about being there, offering advice, sharing moments, and preparing her for the future. As she ages and becomes a parent herself, there’s another critical role to play: You can talk with her about the risks of gynecological cancers.
Early Detection and Prevention
There are reliable early detection tests for two significant cancers seen in women — breast and cervical. Breast cancer awareness campaigns have encouraged women to get routine mammograms, and most women approaching 50 make it part of their annual routines.
Thanks to the Pap smear, the cervical cancer death rate has decreased by more than 50 percent. With the development of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against the most common sexually transmitted virus in America, those numbers should continue to fall.
Unfortunately, there aren’t preventative screenings for ovarian and endometrial cancers. Endometrial cancer is the most common of all gynecological cancers, affecting almost 55,000 women this year. Ovarian is the eighth most common cancer, with roughly 20,000 cases each year.
Symptoms and Risks
The biggest risk factor for endometrial cancer is obesity. Fat takes cholesterol and turns it into estrogen; endometrial cancer occurs when there’s a surplus of estrogen. Managing weight is crucial for avoiding it.
Ovarian cancer used to be termed “the silent killer” because it was originally believed to cause no symptoms. However, a 2007 study linked abdominal bloating, fatigue, lower back pain, and feeling full quickly to ovarian cancer. Although these are common symptoms among other medical issues, studies show that when suddenly experienced together 10 or more times a month, they can be symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Luckily, studies show that taking oral contraceptives for five or more years reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by 50 percent. Having gynecological surgery can also lower the chances by more than two-thirds and a hysterectomy by as much as one-third. Finally, recent data suggests that removing fallopian tubes completely minimizes the chance of contracting ovarian cancer.
Genetics can play an important role in gynecological cancers. Most of these cases are inherited mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which significantly increases the chance of getting both breast and ovarian cancer.
Since 2013, Angelina Jolie has been vocal about how carrying a mutation in her BRCA1 gene has affected her life. She serves as a model for women about what it looks like to take charge of your health.
Another common genetic mutation is called Lynch syndrome — a group of genetic mutations and mismatched repair genes that are present in the DNA and increase the family’s risk of colon, endometrial, and ovarian cancers.
Because these and other genetic abnormalities boost the risk of getting ovarian and other cancers, it’s critical to share your family health history with your daughter. These mutations can come from either the mother’s or the father’s side of the family. For health histories raising a red flag, a certain blood test can assess the risk. Women are encouraged to consult with their doctors about next steps.
With so many factors, it can be hard to keep up. But taking time to have a candid conversation with your daughter about cancer could be the most important conversation you ever have. After all, parenthood never ends. It lasts a lifetime.
About the Author
Valerie Palmieri is the president and CEO of Aspira Women’s Health. Read more health articles on How Life Works.