- What's the name of your hairstylist?
- What's the name of your gynecologist?
If you were only able to answer the first question, you're actually among the majority of American women. A revealing new survey conducted by the Foundation for Women's Cancer and Genentech found that more women have a regular hairstylist, dentist, eye doctor and general practitioner than have a regular gynecologist. Yikes.
And if you couldn't answer the second question because you're not sure whether you're supposed to go in for a pelvic exam each year or not, don't worry, you're not alone. The confusion began in July 2014 when a panel of experts from the American College of Physicians recommended that healthy women didn't need to have pelvic exams as a part of their annual checkups.
But the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and many other women's health organizations say otherwise: You should still get annual pelvic exams because they're key to identifying and preventing early forms of gynecologic cancers — especially cervical cancer. If your gyno says you're at a low risk for gynecological cancers, you can reduce your Pap smear frequency to once every three years, but that doesn't mean you can skip the entire annual exam.
Each year, ovarian and cervical cancers kill more than 18,000 American women and affect more than 33,000, according to ACOG. But there's a disconnect between our concern about cancer and our actions and understanding of the disease: Three-quarters of women are concerned about gynecologic cancer, yet at least a third of us don't know any of the symptoms. Very few women bring up cervical or ovarian cancer during doctors' visits, and over half of us believe our doctors will let us know if there's something worry about.
But the truth is that we need to raise our own awareness in order to catch these cancers before they advance.
"Women need to be their own health care advocates," says Sharyn N. Lewin, MD, medical director of gynecological oncology at the Holy Name Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
If we ask our doctors the right questions, and, perhaps more importantly, educate ourselves about the symptoms of gynecologic cancers, lives can be saved. The earlier cancer is caught, the better the outcome: During a five-year period, 92 percent of early-stage ovarian cancer patients survived, while 28 percent of late-stage ovarian cancer patients died. Similarly, 91 percent of early-stage cervical cancer patients survived as compared to 16 percent of those diagnosed during later stages, according to ACOG.
There are three easy steps to taking charge of your gynecologic health:
- See your gyno yearly. Most insurance plans cover the full cost of an annual pelvic exam.
- Be aware of the symptoms for gynecological cancer. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, frequent urination, and feeling full fast, while symptoms of cervical cancer include anemia, weight loss, urinary problems, pain during sex and abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
- Account for your family history. If a female relative has had breast cancer, you may be at a higher risk of carrying a gene (called BRCA1 or BRCA2) that ups your odds of getting ovarian cancer. If you have HPV (human papillomavirus infection), that increases your risk of cervical cancer. Ask your doctor if you're at risk, and if you are, get screened as soon as possible.