In the United States, every six minutes a woman is diagnosed with gynecologic cancer. Gynecologic cancer begins in a woman’s pelvis due to an uncontrolled growth and the spreading of abnormal cells. There are five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar. Together, they are referred to as gynecologic cancers. Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs, symptoms, and risk factors. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and the risk increases with age. However, you can lower your risk for some of these cancers. When gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment works best. The Gynecologic Oncology department of CareMount Medical specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive system.
Screening for Gynecological Cancers
It is important to be aware of your family’s medical history. There is evidence that women who have inherited the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancers in addition to breast and other cancers. Knowing this information can increase the chances of prevention and early diagnosis. It is important to note that you can still develop a gynecologic cancer even if there is no family history.
Genetic Testing for Gynecological Cancers
There are criteria set forth to determine who should undergo genetic testing to determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. Speak with your doctor to learn more about genetic testing and gene mutations.
Diagnosing Gynecological Cancers
Regular screenings and self-examinations can detect certain types of gynecologic cancers in their earlier stages, increasing the likelihood of successful treatment and the possibility for a cure. Most cervical cancers are diagnosed through pelvic exams and Pap smears. If cancer is diagnosed, your doctor may order additional tests. Some gynecologic cancers have been called “silent killers” because women are unaware of the signs and symptoms associated with these cancers and therefore the cancers are not diagnosed in their early stages.
Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:
- The type of cancer suspected
- Your signs and symptoms
- Your age and medical condition
- The results of earlier medical tests
While early detection and treatment is important, this is not always possible to do for ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer because women often don’t have any symptoms until the tumor is large or in the later stages of the disease. About 70% of epithelial ovarian cancers are not found until the disease is in an advanced stage and has spread to other parts of the body, most commonly the abdomen.
Gynecological Cancer Variations and Treatments
Gynecologic cancers are treated with surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. The treatment plan depends on the type and stage of the cancer.
- Cervical cancer: Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, which is located in the lower end of the uterus. Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, causing more than 90 percent of cases diagnosed in the United States. This virus is common and affects nearly 70 percent of sexually active women. Fortunately, today, a vaccine exists to protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is recommended for preteens prior to first experiencing sexual intercourse. Cervical cancer usually grows slowly, over many years. Before actual cancer cells in the cervix develop, the tissues of the cervix undergo changes at the cellular level — called dysplasia, or pre-cancers. At this early stage, these dysplastic cells can often be removed and the condition cured with an office procedure. The risk factors associated with cervical cancer are HPV infection, smoking and HIV infection. Early-stage cervical cancer is painless and often without symptoms. However, if symptoms are present, they may include pain or bleeding during or after sex, douching, or a pelvic examination; pelvic pain; unusual vaginal discharge; blood or bleeding beyond your normal menstrual period. The Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer.
- Ovarian cancer/Fallopian Tube cancer: Ovarian cancer occurs in the two ovaries, which are almond-sized pouches that create eggs. Due to its location, ovarian cancer often goes undiagnosed until it has spread to the pelvis. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. But when ovarian cancer is found in its early stages, treatment works best. Ovarian cancer often causes signs and symptoms, so it is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you. Be aware of the following symptoms:
- Vaginal bleeding (particularly if you are past menopause), or discharge from your vagina that is not normal for you
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
- Abdominal or back pain
- Feeling full too quickly, or difficulty eating
- A change in your bathroom habits, such as more frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation.
- If you have unusual vaginal bleeding, see a doctor right away.
- Fallopian tube tumors are in the category of ovarian cancer. Fallopian tube cancer, also known as tubal cancer, develops in the fallopian tubes that connect the ovaries and the uterus. It is very rare and accounts for only one to two percent of all gynecologic cancers.
- Uterine/Endometrial cancer: Endometrial cancer develops in the lining of the uterus called the endometrium. Surgery, including a hysterectomy, is the main treatment for endometrial cancer, but radiation therapy, hormone therapy and chemotherapy may also be included as part of the treatment plan. Another and rarer type of cancer that can form in the uterus is uterine sarcoma. Uterine sarcoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the muscles of the uterus or other tissues that support the uterus. A sign of uterine sarcoma includes abnormal bleeding. It is treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy
- Vaginal cancer: While it is possible for some types of gynecologic cancers to spread to the vagina, it’s not common for cancer to form in the vagina.
- Vulvar cancer: This type of gynecologic cancer starts on the outer surface of the female genitalia. It is commonly seen as a lump around the urethra and vulva. It causes itching and irritation. Vulvar cancer is rare, one of the least recognized gynecological cancers, but if detected early, it can be successfully treated and cured.
Almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the vagina and vulva are caused by a virus known as HPV, or Human papillomavirus. Lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise and use of a condom during sexual intercourse can play a significant role in the prevention of certain gynecological cancers.
Schedule a Consultation
To request an appointment or to obtain a second opinion on your diagnosis, please call the CareMount Medical Cancer Center Referral Line at 1-844-484-3292.
Gynecological Cancer Providers