We know how important it is as women to stay abreast of our health. Recognizing any unusual signs in our bodies is the first step towards receiving a proper timely diagnosis –– yet this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. A handful of life-threatening diseases affecting 10 million each year kills over 100,000 women. Beware of these five that often go undetected due to their subtle and stealthy symptoms.
Characterized as the fourth most common cancer for women in the United States, uterine cancer begins in the layer of cells that form the lining (endometrium) of the uterus. Symptoms include vaginal bleeding or discharge unrelated to periods, pelvic pain or pain during intercourse. This can be difficult to discern as more than half of all women experience abnormal, yet benign vaginal bleeding at some point in their lives. Still, any indication of it should be brought to your doctor’s attention.
Hepatitis is an infection brought on by an inflammation of the liver. In most causes it is caused by a virus, but hepatitis can also be caused by drugs, alcohol use or certain medical conditions. The most common forms are hepatitis A, B and C. When symptoms occur (if they do occur early on), they may include fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), nausea, poor appetite, belly pain and/or mild fever. Some causes of hepatitis do not produce any symptoms for years. By the time they do, it may be possible that the liver already has been damaged.
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. Similar to many others on this list, early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. As a result, this cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this point, the cancer is difficult to treat and can frequently be fatal. Often mistaken for other harmless conditions, symptoms of advanced-stage ovarian cancer may present: abdominal bloating or swelling, quickly feeling full when eating, weight loss, discomfort in the pelvic area, changes in bowel habits (like constipation) and a frequent need to urinate. According to doctors, it is unclear what causes ovarian cancer, yet there are identified factors that can increase its risk, including genetics and older age.
Though heart disease is found to be the number one killer of women in the U.S., symptoms are often misconstrued for lesser life-threatening conditions such as acid reflux, the flu or normal aging. A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that supplies oxygen to the heart is severely reduced or cut off completely due to a narrowing of the arteries. This can result from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances. Symptoms of a heart attack can be unexpected such as a stark shortness of breath (even while inactive), upper back pressure with a squeezing sensation, dizziness, lightheadedness or actually fainting. Contrary to men, women may experience a heart attack without chest pressure.
Affecting more than 3 million U.S. cases per year, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is caused by a virus that infects liver cells and causes inflammation. The infection is usually harmless and can go away on its own without presenting any signs or symptoms, but some cases can lead to genital warts, cervical cancer or other cancers of the genitals, head, neck and throat. Intercourse isn’t required to contract HPV as it is a skin-to-skin infection, however most people get HPV through direct sexual contact––those affected can unknowingly pass on the virus to sexual partners.
Bottom line: Be sure to stay up to date on your Pap smears and other important screenings. If you do experience any of the above symptoms, seek urgent medical attention. Don’t underestimate subtle signs as consequences can be deadly.