Abdominal bloating, pelvic pain, early satiety/feelings of fullness while eating, and spotting after menopause can be some early signs of gynecologic cancers but are often ignored as minor inconveniences until they advance, says the newly appointed female gynecologic oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, an integral part of Mubadala Health.
Dr Stephanie Ricci, who treated cancer patients for six years at the US-based Cleveland Clinic, has joined the oncology team at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi as its first female and US Board Certified gynecologic oncologist. Her experience and expertise focus on diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive system, including uterine, ovarian, vaginal, cervical and vulvar cancers.
“Awareness of gynecologic cancers in the UAE is similarly low to what I saw among women in the United States. Women take some of the warning signs of cancers quite lightly and do not schedule regular appointments with their gynecologist. Most of these cancers are more likely to be cured if they are discovered early,” says Dr. Ricci.
She says women must pay attention to even the slightest change in their body or any irregularities and visit a doctor for a thorough investigation. Common gynecologic cancer signs include pelvic pain or pressure, vaginal bleeding or discharge, itching or burning of the genitals, increased urination, constipation or diarrhea, and bleeding or spotting after menopause.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer1, while uterine cancer is the sixth2 and ovarian the eighth3 most common cancer in women worldwide. Family history, age and obesity are important risk factors for gynecologic cancers.
Dr. Ricci says that she has been seeing a lot of patients with advanced disease at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“Women are not being diagnosed early enough because they are referred to different physicians for their symptoms, which delays treatment. There are very few female gynecologic oncologists in the UAE and such cancers can go undetected without the right multidisciplinary expertise. Another important factor contributing to such advanced disease here is that women often stop seeing their gynecologist after they have had children.”
“For women who have reached menopause, it is very important that they see a doctor if they are bleeding again. Patients believe that a little spotting post menopause is not concerning, but this is never normal and can be a sign of endometrial cancer, which begins in the inner lining of the uterus. This cancer is curable if found at an early stage. Once metastatic, the recovery rate drops significantly.”
Dr. Ricci says annual exams with pap smears, investigating issues of pelvic pain, abdominal bloating and abnormal menstruation, and scheduling a mammogram and colonoscopy based on health history and age can help reduce the risk of gynecologic cancers.
“Your doctor can order further tests, including genetic testing, and recommend a treatment plan with the right diet and lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of cancer or prevent it altogether.”
The expert says that treatment for gynecologic cancer has made significant strides in the last decade with most procedures to remove tumors done with minimally invasive techniques.
“Advancements in not only treating but also diagnosing these cancers means that patients have better outcomes and a faster recovery. For example, for patients with endometrial cancer, we can do a minimally invasive laparoscopic hysterectomy, and a sentinel lymph node mapping to determine whether the cancer has spread, and they can go home the same day. The incisions are small and the surgery is completed in less than two hours. Immunotherapy, where we take advantage of a person’s own immune system to help kill cancer cells, is also emerging as a viable treatment option for patients with ovarian, cervical, and endometrial cancer,” Dr. Ricci concludes.