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Reading about gynecologic cancer is enough to send shivers down any woman's spine.
For we define much of our womanhood through our reproductive organs, not only on a physiological basis, for example, our ovaries produce estrogen, but also in an emotional way, particularly when it comes to our womb.
But you are not powerless against these cancers. As with every type of cancer, certain lifestyle practices may help protect you. For instance, since the human papilloma virus (HPV) causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancers, and since the virus is primarily contracted through sexual intercourse, monogamy and practicing safe sex by using condoms can help reduce your risk of contracting the virus in the first place.
There is also some evidence that cigarette smoking-even exposure to secondhand smoke could contribute to cervical cancer. Yet another reason not to smoke or to quit ASAP!
With any cancer, particularly ovarian and endometrial, it is critical that you know your family history. Don't just rely on what mom tells you, however.
If you recall several female relatives dying of "stomach problems," dig deeper. Check the death certificate or even medical records to see if those problems might actually have been a gynecologic cancer.
Other things you can do to reduce your risk:
- Lose weight. Obesity is the leading cause of endometrial cancer. So, make weight management a priority.
- Take birth control pills. Numerous studies find they can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer, probably by limiting the number of times you ovulate throughout your lifetime.
- Get regular daily exercise. You knew this one was coming, didn't you? Well, the studies are pretty convincing that moderate exercise (that would be a 30- minute walk four or five days a week) reduces your risk of endometrial cancer, probably by helping regulate weight and blood sugar levels.
Now, a few words for women trying to cope with a gyn cancer: Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying, but a major study published in 2003 found that women diagnosed with gynecologic cancer have a poorer quality of life-defined as physical, emotional, social and functional well-being- than even women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Not only are you scared to death about your health, tired and sick from the treatments, but you're probably also worried about your family. If you were premenopausal, suddenly being thrust into menopause carries it with it a whole host of emotional issues, not the least of which may be changes in your sexual function.
Here are a few coping tips to consider:
- First, recognize that these feelings are perfectly normal. Also recognize that now, more than during any other time in your life, you have to take care of you. That includes such things as sleeping or resting when you're tired -regardless of the time of day or night- eating healthfully, preferably with the guidance of a dietician experienced in cancer care-and getting some kind of physical exercise when you feel up to it, even if it's just walking down to the mailbox.
- Try to reframe your diagnosis in a positive manner. Use it as a reason to find a new meaning and focus in life. One major study found that such reframing, along with acceptance --defined as facing unfortunate realities that cannot be changed -- resulted in greater physical, emotional and functional well-being in women one year after they were diagnosed with gynecologic cancer. Additionally, the study found that women who sought and received comfort from someone in their life led to greater social well-being and doctor-patient relationships.
- Bottom line: turn your caregiving inward. Take care of the person who needs it most right now: you.