Ashley Schroeder is a health educator at Benteh Nuutah Valley Native Primary Care Center. Women’s health is a passion for her and a subject close to her heart.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and September 26 is National Women’s Health and Fitness Day. To highlight these events I’d like to start a conversation about gynecological cancers, what I call the big five, which include cervical, uterine or endometrial, ovarian, vulvar, and vaginal cancers.

Cancer occurs when cells of the body grow at an increased rate and become malignant. Cervical cancer occurs in the lower part of the uterus and is often caused by human papillomavirus, a virus that is common in men and women. I encourage women to stay up to date on a preventative exam, including a pap smear, which can detect changes in the cervix early when HPV is easily treatable. There is also a vaccine available for young adults that helps prevent cervical cancer caused by HPV.

Uterine or endometrial cancer occurs in the uterus, either in the uterine muscle itself or in the inner lining of the uterus called the endometrium. Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries, the female organ responsible for housing a woman’s eggs, and can spread to other areas of the body in later stages of the disease. Your regular pap smear and well-woman exam does not screen for ovarian cancer or uterine/endometrial cancers. Vulvar cancer occurs in the vulva, the external tissues surrounding the vagina. Vaginal cancers occur anywhere inside the vagina. These cancers can be detected during a pelvic exam, which is usually performed as part of a well-woman appointment and don’t necessarily need to be combined with a pap smear. The pap smear is used to detect cervical cancer, but can also sometimes detect vaginal cancer cells.

This September, the health education department at the Benteh Nuutah Valley Native Primary Care Center is starting a gynecological cancer educational campaign; the goal is to raise awareness on female cancers and educate women on resources available for women who are currently going through cancer treatment and for those who have been
newly diagnosed.

It is my personal goal, to open the lines of communication and increase awareness about the different forms of cancer that affect women. We don’t often hear or talk about gynecological cancers because it can be uncomfortable to discuss, especially in an educational or public health setting. I want to urge women to be their own health advocates and to feel empowered to ask their providers questions about gynecological cancers and preventative screenings. As customer-owners at Southcentral Foundation, you are both a customer of our health care services and an owner of your health care. You have shared responsibility with your provider to make informed decisions about your medical care, which puts you in the driver’s seat. I encourage you to be informed about the big five and thrive in good health.

By Ashley Schroeder

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