Few things have changed America the way technology has. The light bulb, penicillin and computers are the most distinguishable inventions that allow us to live easier and healthier lives. The Pap smear, however, is one innovation that women don’t necessarily think of when life-changing discoveries come to mind. In fact, the Pap smear remains the best method for detecting tumors and precancerous cells that may lead to cervical cancer. When cancer does arise, advances in technology have made treatment easier and more comprehensive.
Sudarshan Sharma, MD, a gyne-oncologist with Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, outlines two additional cancers women should be aware of and what signs to look for.
Uterine cancer is the most common type of gynecological cancer with more than 40,000 women diagnosed each year. “Although most women who develop this cancer are in the middle of menopause or postmenopausal, 10 percent of patients are under 50 years old,” says Dr. Sharma.
Uterine cancer starts in the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. Having a hormone imbalance can make some women more susceptible to developing the cancer than others. This hormone imbalance is more likely when a woman is obese, is taking estrogen without progestin, has polycystic ovary syndrome, has never been pregnant or has never breast-fed. “The most common symptom is abnormal bleeding after menopause,” Dr. Sharma says. “Women with more advanced stages may also experience unexplained weight loss.”
Although 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, Dr. Sharma says it’s one of the most preventable gynecological cancers and the most easily treated when found early. “A woman can have HPV (human papillomavirus) for years without knowing it,” he says. “A Pap smear can detect these abnormal cells before they turn into cancer.”
Despite the health benefits, millions of women still neglect getting regular Pap smears. According to the American Cancer Society, only 80 percent of women have had one in the past three years. They recommend all women over age 18 get an annual Pap smear. Once a woman reaches 30, every two to three years is sufficient – as long as she’s had three normal tests in a row. The HPV vaccine is also a way to prevent cervical cancer when taken before a girl becomes sexually active.
Besides abnormal test results, signs women should look for include:
• Abnormal bleeding
• Vaginal discharge that is tinged with blood
• Bleeding when something touches the cervix, such as inserting a diaphragm
• Pain during intercourse
Ovarian cancer occurs when a tumor develops in a woman’s ovary. Because there is no known cause and many times no symptoms, it is often detected in more advanced stages and is more fatal than other gynecological cancers. More than 20,000 women are diagnosed each year and 66 percent will eventually succumb to the disease. When warning signs are present, they include:
• Abnormal bleeding
• Ongoing pain in the abdomen or back
Although Pap smears are not meant to prevent or detect uterine and ovarian cancers, Dr. Sharma says your annual gynecologic exam is still very important as abnormalities that are found could lead to further testing.
“Women who experience any of the symptoms related to uterine, cervical or ovarian cancer should see their gynecologist for an exam,” Dr. Sharma says. Depending on the symptoms, your physician may recommend a biopsy, ultrasound or additional tests.
Adventist Midwest Health is on the forefront of treating women’s cancers, providing women with more options than ever. In May, Dr. Sharma performed Adventist Hinsdale Hospital’s first surgical procedure using the da Vinci® Surgical System. By using robotic assistance, Dr. Sharma performed a hysterectomy and a pelvic and aortic lymph node dissection on a patient with uterine cancer. Instead of opening up the body, the da Vinci enabled him to make six tiny incisions. And because the da Vinci is minimally invasive, his patient recovered faster, left the hospital sooner and experienced less pain.
Dr. Sharma and his department are currently participating in more than 25 clinical trials. In fact, most of his patients are either involved in a clinical trial or have been offered a chance to participate in one. Through these trials, their research and findings help advance the medical field. "It's a wonderful time in my profession now because so many things are changing for our patients, including better medicines and more advanced technology,” Dr. Sharma says. “It’s very rewarding to see women living better with higher quality of lives.”
To learn more about the da Vinci, read “Minimally Invasive Procedures with the da Vinci® System.” To find a physician, call us at 866-533-7968.