While nobody wants to think about the fact that they may be at high risk for cancer, or hear that they have been diagnosed with cancer, being proactive in the screening process is vital for early detection and maintaining your overall health. Diagnosing cancer early gives patients a much better outlook for their treatment and generally better outcomes, which is why routine cancer screenings are so important. Your gynecologist can screen for specific types of cancer, and at Maternal Fetal Medicine Associates, patients can also learn more about their genetic predispositions that may put them at a higher risk of developing cancer. If you have a history of cancer in your family or are interested in learning more about cancer screenings and their importance, read on for more information.
Cancer screening is a normal test that is performed as part of a well-woman’s appointment with your gynecologist. During your visit, your gynecologist can perform a breast exam, a Pap smear, and colorectal cancer screening. All of these tests help to screen for breast cancer, cervical cancer, and cancer of the colon or rectum. It is recommended that women receive a well-women’s appointment annually. Girls can begin seeing a gynecologist between the ages of 13 and 15, but if asymptomatic do not need a pelvic exam or Pap Smear until age 21. Making sure to attend your appointment every year is the best way to detect, or even prevent, cervical cancer.
During a breast exam, your gynecologist will feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes and check for skin changes that can indicate breast cancer. These skin changes can include dimpled skin, nipples turning inwards, or nipple discharge. In addition to having a breast exam done at your annual well-woman’s appointment, you can perform regular self-breast exams at home as well, but a professional exam is always recommended. Feel free to ask your doctor how to properly perform a self-breast exam at home between appointments. If you ever do feel a lump in your breast at home, or notice changes in the breast size or appearance, be sure to speak with your doctor as soon as you can. In the absence of a family history of breast cancer, annual screening mammograms are recommended for women starting at age 40. With a family history of breast cancer, individual plans are devised for optimal screening and detection.
The Pap smear is a screening test that checks for cells that if left alone for several years can result in cervical cancer. Your gynecologist may also test for HPV (human papilloma virus), a virus that is strongly associated with cervical cancer. Most abnormal Pap smear results are benign, so you don’t need to be overly concerned if your gynecologist recommends further testing, such as a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a procedure performed in the gynecologist’s office to help your doctor get a more accurate diagnosis of an abnormality noted by the Pap.
To screen for colorectal cancer, your doctor may perform a stool test or rectal exam. Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon or rectum, which is located at the end of the digestive tract. In the absence of a family history, screening with colonoscopy by a gastroenterologist (GI MD) is recommended starting at age 45. If the results are normal it is repeated at 10 year intervals; if finding of polyps or precancerous lesions are noted, it is repeated more frequently. Discuss this with your gynecologist at you annual visit.
Unfortunately, ovarian cancer can’t be detected through a routine screening at your regular well-woman’s appointment. However, if you have a higher risk for ovarian cancer or symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain, your gynecologist may recommend an ultrasound, bloodwork, or other tests.
Regardless of a healthy diet and regular exercise, preventative cancer screenings are a crucial part of preventative woman’s health care. Patients should view health screenings as an investment in their future because catching cancer early on means a higher probability of treatment being successful. If you have a history of cancer in your family or have had cancer in the past, it is especially important to share this information with your doctor during your visit as He or she may recommend cancer genetics counseling, which can detect certain gene mutations that may increase your risk for developing certain cancers during your lifetime. If a gene mutation is detected, you will then be better informed regarding your risks and more able to develop a plan for scheduling proactive yearly screenings. Your doctor may recommend additional screenings that may be relevant to you.
Certain types of cancer run in families through genetic mutations that can be passed down from generation to generation. These include breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, uterine cancer, and others. Having an extensive or even general knowledge of your family’s medical history can help determine if you should test for certain genetic mutations. Patients can choose to have their DNA tested through a blood or saliva test to see if they are at an increased risk for cancer, but determining whether this is necessary starts with a genetic counseling appointment.
During this appointment, you will review your personal and family medical history with one of our board-certified Obstetrician/Gynecologists. This helps to determine your risk and whether genetic testing is necessary. If you decide to proceed with testing, there are three possible test results:
- A positive result means you do have a pathogenic variant indicating an increased risk for cancer.
- A negative result indicates you have no pathogenic variants and no increased risk of cancer.
- An inconclusive result, meaning that some alterations in your genes were detected, but it is unknown whether this puts you at an increased risk for cancer. In these cases, you should continue to follow your doctor’s recommendations including a healthy lifestyle and sticking to recommended cancer screening guidelines.
All patients should, however, understand that genetic testing does come with some limitations. These tests cannot test for every single gene or gene variant that might indicate an increased risk for cancer. So it is important not to rely on these tests alone when screening for cancer or an increased risk of cancer. Your doctor will speak with you regarding these testing limitations, as well as answer any questions you have.
To schedule an appointment for a well-woman’s visit, genetic counseling, or genetic cancer screening, call Maternal Fetal Medicine Associates at (212) 235-1335 or request your appointment online. Our team specializes in providing outstanding care for women who are at high risk for complications during pregnancy. However, we also offer an array of gynecological services to meet the needs of each of our patients.
Maternal Fetal Medicine blogs are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace certified professional care. Medical conditions vary and change frequently. Please ask your doctor any questions you may have regarding your condition to receive a proper diagnosis or risk analysis. Thank you!