Cancers that originate in the female reproductive organs – uterine, ovarian, cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers – are diagnosed in more than 100,000 American women each year. Annually, more than 30,000 women lose their lives to gynecologic cancers.

Unfortunately for many women, the symptoms of these cancers are silent, so cancers can grow undetected for years.

September is recognized nationally as Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month – an appropriate time for women to learn more about these cancers, including early detection and prevention. As more women understand the often silent or masked symptoms of gynecologic cancers, they’re more apt to take action and find cancer when it’s most treatable.

Gynecologic cancers do come with warning signs, such as vaginal bleeding or bloating, but the symptoms are so ambiguous they’re easily dismissed.

The best weapon is something most women have every year as part of their wellness checkup: a Pap smear. This important annual test is a screening for pre-cancers and is a key reason we now have a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), which can actually prevent cervical cancer.

Women who have abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially after menopause, should seek medical attention immediately.

Although pap smears are no longer required annually after menopause, it is still important to have a breast and pelvic exam every two years. It is also important for women that have undergone a hysterectomy, to continue to see a gynecologist on a regular basis.

If it has been a year or more since your last well woman visit and Pap smear, schedule an appointment today.

In addition to an annual Pap smear, here are other important ways you can help lower your risk of developing gynecologic cancers.

• Report your symptoms. Tell your doctor about abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain or pressure, abdominal or back pain, pain with intercourse, bloating, changes in bathroom habits, itching or burning of the vulva, and changes in vulva color or skin.

• Stop smoking, especially if you have HPV. The combination increases risk for vaginal cancer.

• Know your family history. BRCA genetic mutations can result in ovarian and breast cancer.

• Consider birth control pills. Ask your doctor whether they’re right for you, in order to decrease risk for uterine and ovarian cancers.

• Manage your weight. Excess weight is a major contributor to uterine (endometrial) cancer, the most common gynecologic cancer.

• Speak with your physician about getting the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is now recommended for boys and girls at age 11 or 12, as well as women 13 to 26 years old, and males 13 to 21 who have not previously been vaccinated.

All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and risk increases with age. But you can lower your risk by getting your regular check up and talking to your health care provider if you notice unexplained symptoms.

Remember, health care starts with self-care.

Soldrea Thompson, M.D., FACOG, a board-certified OB-GYN, practices with Beaufort Memorial Obstetrics and Gynecology Specialists and sees patients in both Bluffton and Beaufort.