The Importance of Annual Gynecological Exams
“Annual Exams Save Lives” has become one of my most-touted phrases since being diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2019. While many -- including medical professionals and gynecologists alike -- often dismiss the need for a yearly women’s wellness exam, this precautionary measure may have saved my life.
My annual exam saved my life
If it weren’t for my doctor's ability to observe that my uterus felt enlarged during my annual pelvic exam, who knows when I would have found out that I had developed ovarian cancer? It might have been too late -- a thought that haunts me to this day.
At this point, completely unbeknownst to me, I had already reached a stage 3C diagnosis. I later learned that the majority of women with ovarian cancer (more than 75 percent, according to American Family Physician) are diagnosed at an advanced stage (stage 3 or later). This is not only due to the current lack of reliable screening tests, but also because symptoms do not typically appear until stage 3 or 4, if at all.
Vague symptoms were my only sign
Looking back, I was experiencing a number of vague, indistinguishable symptoms (like bloating and indigestion) on and off for several months. Being only 29 years old at the time of my diagnosis, and with no family history of cancer, ovarian cancer was the last thing on my mind.
After my abnormal pelvic exam, I was implored by my doctor to receive a panel of lab work in addition to a transvaginal ultrasound, which later detected a baseball-sized tumor growing on my left ovary.
Fortunately, I was seeing a proactive gynecologist at the time, but this isn't always the case for many women diagnosed with ovarian cancer -- especially younger women. In fact, ovarian cancer symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed or dismissed altogether -- by both patients and their doctors. This is one of the primary reasons ovarian cancer has earned its notorious nickname as "the silent killer."
Too often women's health is overlooked
As cervical cancer screening guidelines have evolved over the years, many gynecologists are now recommending that women only need to be tested once every three to five years (depending on their Pap smear history and HPV status). However, this does not negate the need for an OBGYN visit at least once a year, regardless of whether the patient has one sexual partner, several, or none.
There are so many aspects to women's health that are often overlooked. Not only can annual gynecological exams detect a potential cancer diagnosis (via breast exam, pelvic exam, or vaginal speculum exam, for instance), but these preventative visits also give women the opportunity to discuss a wide array of women's health-related concerns with their provider (i.e. vaginal infections, STD screening and prevention, birth control, urinary incontinence, menopausal symptoms, breast changes, sexual function, bone health, fertility, and much more).
Why we need to advocate for ourselves
It's essential for women to inform their doctor if they are experiencing any physical irregularities (whether symptoms appear to be gyno-related or not). This includes pelvic pain, persistent bloating, abnormal bleeding, pain during sex, as well as any digestive changes like constipation and urinary frequency and/or urgency. This is particularly important to discuss if symptoms persist for two weeks or longer.
I would also suggest advocating for additional testing such as blood work, an ultrasound, or even a CT scan. If a patient does not feel that their concerns are being heard, it might be time to find a new doctor or seek out a second opinion.
What stage were you diagnosed with?