Gynecologic Cancer: What All Women Need to Know
Every woman, unfortunately, is at some risk of developing gynecologic cancer. Approximately 100,000 women are diagnosed with a form of gynecologic cancer every year in the U.S. While significant advances have been made in identifying and treating this disease, approximately 30% of all cases today still result in death. The following provides a basic overview of gynecologic cancer so that you and your loved ones can have a better understanding of how to prevent, identify, and/or treat gynecologic cancer going forward.
What is gynecologic cancer?
Gynecologic cancer is the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells that originate in a woman’s reproductive organs. These include the ovaries, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, vagina, and vulva.
The five main types and their symptoms
This form of cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It is the leading cause of death amongst gynecologic cancers. The most common type of ovarian cancer is epithelial ovarian cancer, which forms on the surface of the ovary in the epithelial cells. Symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, pelvic pressure or pain, frequent need to urinate or constipation, bloating, or back pain.
Cervical cancer begins in the cells that line the cervix, which connects the body of the uterus to the vagina. Fortunately, for many years, the Pap test has been a popular and effective screening to identify cervical cancer and has helped prevent many deaths. The main symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
The most commonly diagnosed type of gynecologic cancer and fourth most common cancer in women in the United States. Uterine cancer occurs in the endometrium, the mucous membrane that lines the wall of the uterus. The cells grow out of control in the endometrium and may spread to the muscle of the uterus, and outside of the uterus to ovaries, lymph nodes, and abdomen. Symptoms usually include abnormal vaginal bleeding and discharge and/or pelvic pressure and pain.
Most vaginal cancer is found in the lining of the vagina and usually affects women between 50 and 70 years old. Because vaginal cancers are often associated with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), they can be prevented by vaccinations recommended for the prevention of cervical cancer. Symptoms take the form of abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, the frequent need or urge to urinate, and/or constipation.
Cancer of the vulva is fairly rare among gynecologic cancers and is highly curable when detected at an early stage. It is typically found in the inner and outer lips of the vagina, the clitoris, and the opening of the vagina. Symptoms include itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva or the presence of a rash, sores, or warts.
Although any woman could face the possibility of developing a form of gynecologic cancer, some women may be at greater risk than others. Recognizing the risk factors is an important step for women to seek out medical screenings that can spot problems early on. These screenings can also highlight the need to adjust one’s lifestyle and/or change unhealthy behaviors and habits that may increase the risk of cancer.
Factors that increase the risk of gynecologic cancer:
- Menopause age (around 50)
- Family history of gynecologic or breast cancer
- Hypertension, diabetes, chronic vulvar irritation, or late menopause
- Past infertility problems
- History of abnormal pap smears
- HIV or HPV infection
- Multiple sexual partners
- Intercourse before the age of sixteen
The importance of regularly scheduled screening procedures cannot be emphasized enough. Below are critical tests that can help detect possible cancers.
- Pap Smear
In this procedure, a piece of cotton or small stick is used to collect cells from the cervix and vagina. These cells are then examined under microscope for signs of abnormalities or disease. Should be performed beginning at age 21.
- Pelvic Exam
A doctor or nurse will examine, visually and by feel, the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and rectum for any unusual lumps or sensitivities. Should be performed annually beginning at age 18.
- Endometrial Tissue Sample
A doctor will take a small tissue sample from the endometrium (uterus lining). The tissue is then examined under a microscope for any unusual characteristics or signs of cancer. Should be performed as needed if exhibiting any symptoms of gynecologic cancer as well as at the start of menopause for women with high-risk factors.
The treatment of gynecologic cancers varies depending on the type of cancer as well as on how far it has spread. More than one kind of treatment may be involved; however the range of treatment usually encompasses surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
Another option to explore, particularly in cases where cancer has spread and/or has not responded to the methods mentioned above, is participation in a clinical trial. These programs test new approaches to treatment and may provide solutions for relieving symptoms or possibly more. Talk to your physician to determine if you could be a potential candidate for clinical trial.