Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month: What You Should Know
by Jane Meggitt
September is Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month. Gynecological cancers encompass all cancers found in the female reproductive system. All women are vulnerable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 89,000 women are diagnosed with gynecological cancer annually in the United States and 29,000 will succumb to the disease.
Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month
Spreading the word about gynecological cancer saves lives. While many women are aware of the signs of breast cancer, that is less true for their reproductive organs. Wear a purple ribbon in recognition of Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month.
5 Gynecological Cancers
There are five major gynecological cancers. These are:
1. Cervical Cancer
This cancer of the lower end of the uterus was once a major killer of women. Caused by the human papillomavirus, vaccinations and routine Pap screenings have greatly reduced the incidence of cervical cancer.
2. Ovarian Cancer
The seventh-leading type of female cancer, ovarian cancer was known as “the silent killer” because symptoms did not appear until later stages. Early symptoms are subtle. So, pay attention to any discomfort in the abdominal area.
3. Uterine Cancer
Is also known as endometrial cancer because it affects the endometrium, or uterine lining. This is the most common type of gynecological cancer. Another type of uterine cancer, uterine sarcoma, is rare and forms in the uterine muscles.
4. Vaginal Cancer
This cancer is either squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma. The latter is most common in postmenopausal women and is more likely to metastasize
5. Vulvar Cancer
While rare, approximately 5,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with vulvar cancer. These tumors may appear in the clitoris, the vagina’s opening and inner and outer lips and the vaginal glands.
Gynecological Cancer Risk Factors
Risk factors for gynecological cancer depend on cancer type. Heredity is always a risk factor, and obesity contributes to many gynecological cancers. Female patients diagnosed with another form of cancer, even if in remission, are at increased risk of developing gynecological cancer. The risks for all of these cancers increase with age.
Women who never had children are at higher risk for gynecological cancers. This is also true for those who began menstruating before age 12 or went through menopause past age 55. The use of oral contraceptives or fertility drugs increases risk.
Exposure to diethylstilbestrol — a synthetic form of the female hormone estrogen — in utero increases the risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the cervix and vagina. DES was prescribed to women from the 1940s to 1971 to prevent miscarriage. However, this cancer remains rare, even in those dubbed “DES daughters.”
Women treated with tamoxifen for breast cancer are at increased risk for developing uterine cancer. Careful monitoring during treatment detects this cancer early and hysterectomy offers a cure.
Gynecological Cancer Symptoms
Symptoms in many gynecological cancers do not appear in the early stages. As noted, ovarian cancer symptoms are subtle in the beginning but include bloating, changes in urinary habits, feeling full even when eating little and abdominal or pelvic pain.
One symptom of cervical cancer may include vaginal discharge or odor. Abnormal bleeding and pain may also be present.
Keep in mind that it is not normal to experience vaginal bleeding once menopause takes place. True menopause occurs when the woman has not had a period in at least one year. Do not ignore even light, pink or brown spotting. Those seemingly innocuous spots could indicate uterine cancer. If caught early, uterine cancer is usually curable after hysterectomy.
Pain or bleeding after intercourse or postmenopausal bleeding are potential vaginal cancer symptoms. So are urinary difficulties, pelvic pain or a palpable mass in the vagina.
Symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:
- Chronic itching
- Bleeding outside of the menstrual period
- Red, white or pink bump or lump, often with a wart-like surface
- Long-term open sore
- Genital ulceration
Gynecological Cancer Prevention
One of the best ways to prevent cervical and vulvar cancer is via the human papillomavirus vaccination. Visit your doctor regularly for gynecological cancer screening.
It is estimated that 15% of ovarian cancers are related to gene mutation. It is recommended that you undergo genetic testing if a close female relative (such as a mother or sister) has been diagnosed with the disease. Maintaining a healthy weight, consuming a healthy diet free of processed and sugary foods, and regular exercise can help prevent gynecological cancer.
Gynecological Cancer Diagnosis
Schedule an appointment with a gynecologist if experiencing any gynecological cancer symptoms. The doctor will look for masses or irregularities during the pelvic exam. If a mass is felt, the doctor will order or perform further testing, such as:
- CT scan
- Blood tests
Gynecological Cancer Treatment
Treatment depends on the type of cancer, stage and grade. As always, the earlier a cancer is detected, before it has the chance to spread, the better the prognosis.
Treatment may include:
- Radiation therapy
Yosemite Pathology and Precision Pathology is a leader in the advancement of anatomic pathology in the Western United States. It was founded nearly 70 years ago by a woman. We have always placed an emphasis on female health. We offer highly experienced board-certified cytopathologists and surgical pathologists with specialization in gynecological pathology.
We partner with GYNQ™, the premier provider of gynecologic pathology services capable of fulfilling unique gynecology practice requirements. For more information about our services and partners, contact us today.
Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.
American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) – Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month
UChicago Medicine – Gynecologic Cancer Risk Factors & Assessment
National Cancer Institute – Diethylstilbestrol (DES) and Cancer
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Gynecologic Cancer Incidence, United States—2012–2016
This article is approved