Gynecologic cancers are the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells originating in the female reproductive organs, including the cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vagina, and vulva.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 98,000 women will be diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer in 2015, and more than 30,000 women will die from these diseases.
If gynecologic cancer is suspected, it is critical that you see a specialist, specifically, a gynecologic oncologist in order to obtain the correct diagnosis, most appropriate treatment, and optimal outcome. To find a gynecologic oncologist near you, click here.
Cervical cancer occurs in approximately 12,340 women every year. It is caused by abnormal changes in cells in the cervix, and is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented by regular screening and appropriate vaccination. For over 50 years, routine use of the Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer has reduced deaths from the disease by more than 70%.
Cervical cancer and cervical pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. That is why it is important to have a Pap smear. A woman usually does not have any symptoms until the cells turn into cancer and invade the deepest parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs. These are common symptoms in women with fully developed cervical cancer.
These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other health problems. It is important for a woman to see her doctor if she is having any of these symptoms.
Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer among women. More than 20,000 are diagnosed every year and because of late stage diagnosis, more than 14,000 will die. The Pap smear DOES NOT screen for ovarian cancer.
Recent studies have shown that the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:
If you have these symptoms, they are new for you, and occur for more than a few weeks or more than 12 times in a month, they may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer. Seek prompt medical attention, preferably from a gynecologist.
In the most common type of uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, cells in the endometrial lining grow out of control, may invade the muscle of the uterus and sometimes spreads outside of the uterus (ovaries, lymph nodes, abdomen).
Uterine sarcomas are a type of uterine cancer in which malignant cells form in the muscle of the uterus (leiomyoscarcoma) or in the network of support cells in the uterine lining (stromal sarcomas and carcinosarcomas).
The most common warning sign for uterine cancer, including endometrial cancer, is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Recognition of this symptom often affords an opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment. In older women, any bleeding after menopause may be a symptom of endometrial cancer. Younger women are also at risk and should note irregular or heavy vaginal bleeding as this can be symptoms of endometrial cancer.
Vaginal cancer usually affects women between 50-70 years old and occurs in more than 5,000 women each year. Primary vaginal cancer is one of the rarest of the gynecologic cancers. Because many vaginal cancers are associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18, vaginal cancer can be prevented by the vaccinations advocated for the prevention of cervical cancer.
Vaginal cancer, especially at the precancerous and early stages, may not cause any symptoms. Common symptoms for more advanced vaginal cancer include:
Cancer of the vulva forms in a woman’s external genitalia. The vulva includes the inner and outer lips of the vagina, the clitoris, and the opening of the vagina and its glands. Approximately 4,000 women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer each year.
Fallopian tube cancer (FTC) is relatively rare and very closely related to cancers of the ovary and primary peritoneal cancer (PPC). FTC shares many commonalities and emerging data is even suggesting that many of the previously felt to be ovarian cancers may indeed have been fallopian tube cancer.
Because of the vague nature of their symptoms, PPC and FTC are usually diagnosed in advanced stages of disease, when achieving a cure is difficult. The typical symptoms of both are more commonly gastrointestinal rather than gynecologic in nature, and include:
Primary peritoneal cancer (PPC) is a relatively rare cancer that develops most commonly in women. PPC is a close relative of epithelial ovarian cancer, which is the most common type of malignancy that affects the ovaries. The cause of primary peritoneal cancer is unknown.
It is important for women to know that it is possible to have primary peritoneal cancer even if their ovaries have been removed.
Know your body. Symptoms of gynecologic cancer can be difficult to recognize. It’s important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. If you have any symptoms that persist for two weeks or longer and are not normal for you, talk to your doctor.
Protect yourself from HPV. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that don’t go away increase the risk of getting several types of gynecologic cancer. Talk to your doctor about getting the HPV test and ask about the vaccine, which protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Also, limit your number of sexual partners and when you do have sex, use a condom. Learn more about vaccine safety here.
Get regular Pap smears. Pap smears, which can find precancerous changes on the cervix, are one of the most reliable and effective cervical cancer screening tests available. All women aged 21-65 should get regular Pap smears as directed by your doctor.
Make healthy lifestyle choices. Maintaining a healthy weight and staying active can help reduce your chance of getting certain gynecologic cancers, including uterine and ovarian cancers. Also, smoking is a risk factor for cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Make sure to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, avoid smoking and practice safe sex.
Know your family health history. If you or someone in your family has a history of uterine, breast, ovarian and/or colon cancer, your doctor may recommend genetic testing and counseling. While genetic testing is not recommended for all women, it can help some women learn if they have an increased chance of developing ovarian, breast, and/or uterine cancers.
- SOURCE: Cancer Treatment Centers of America
The Pap smear is used to detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages. In addition, one of the most significant advances in the fight against cervical cancer is the development of HPV vaccines. Early vaccination with regular screening, which includes a Pap smear and HPV test when recommended according to current guidelines, is now the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer.
There is currently NO screening test for ovarian cancer, which is why it is so important to know the symptoms, know your body, and know your family history. According to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, risk factors for ovarian cancer include:
Age – Your risk increases as you get older.
Family History – Your risk is higher if you have any close blood relatives who have had breast cancer prior to age 50 or ovarian cancer at any age.
Reproductive History – Your risk is higher if you have never had children or have a history of difficulty getting pregnant.
Medication Exposure – Your risk is lower if you have used oral contraceptives. Your risk may be higher if you have taken hormone replacement.
Ethnicity – White women from Europe and North America have a higher risk than other groups. Jewish women of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) background may have an even higher risk.
Genetics – Genetic testing indicating you have a cancer causing change (mutation) in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene increases your risk for developing ovarian cancer by 50%. Families with a high frequency of endometrial, colon and ovarian cancer may carry a genetic mutation known as Lynch Syndrome. If you have relatives with endometrial, colon and/or ovarian cancer, you should see a genetics specialist. For more information about Lynch Syndrome, click here.
Other Factors – Your risk is higher if you have a history of a condition called endometriosis.
According to the Foundation for Women’s Cancers, risk factors for endometrial cancer include:
Heredity also plays a role in a small percentage of women with endometrial cancer. Families with a high frequency of endometrial, colon and ovarian cancer may carry a genetic mutation known as Lynch Syndrome. If you have relatives with endometrial, colon and/or ovarian cancer, you should see a genetics specialist. For more information about Lynch Syndrome, click here.
According to the Foundation for Women’s Cancers, risk factors for vaginal cancer include:
According to the Foundation for Women’s Cancers, the three most important risk factors for developing vulvar cancer include skin condition (lichen sclerosis), the human papillomavirus (HPV) and smoking.