September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month

Featured Article, Ovarian Cancer, Reproductive Health, Women's Health
on September 9, 2015
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Nobody wants to talk about gynecologic cancers, but it’s a conversation women need to have. The numbers are sobering. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2015, 98,280 women will be diagnosed with gynecologic cancer—30,440 of those women will die. It is so important for women to know the signs and symptoms because, if caught early, these cancers are highly treatable.

In honor of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, here are the most common types of gynecologic cancers, as well as symptoms and screening tools.

 

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is highly preventable, thanks to the human papillomavirus vaccine. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus, which is commonly transmitted during sexual intercourse.

The Pap test is the best screening tool for cervical cancer; keep in mind, the Pap test only detects cervical cancer. Beginning at age 21, all women need to be screened for cervical cancer and every three years thereafter up until age 30, if the results are negative. After age 30, the guidelines recommend being screened every five years.

 

Risk factors:

  • Having HIV or another immune disorder.
  • Having multiple sexual partners.
  • Having three or more children.
  • Smoking.
  • Using birth control pills for five or more years.

 

In its early stages, cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms. Abnormal bleeding or vaginal discharge are advanced symptoms. The American Cancer Society estimates that 12,340 women will be diagnosed, and 4,030 will die. See your health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms.

 

Four stages:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells are only on the surface of the cervix.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells have grown into the cervix.
  • Stage 2: Cancer cells have grown outside the cervix and uterus.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells have spread to the lower part of the vagina or the pelvic wall.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have spread to nearby organs or throughout the body.

 

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth as a cause of cancer deaths among women and causes more deaths than any other gynecologic cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 21,290 women will be diagnosed, and 14,180 will die.

 

Risk factors:

  • Being middle-aged.
  • Having breast, cervical, colorectal or uterine cancer, or melanoma.
  • Having a close family member with ovarian cancer.
  • Having an Eastern European Jewish background.
  • Having endometriosis.
  • Having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, or one associated with Lynch syndrome.
  • Never being pregnant.

 

Some studies suggest women who take estrogen without progesterone for 10 or more years have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

There is no screening test. If you are experiencing signs or symptoms, schedule an appointment with your health care provider.

 

Signs or symptoms:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
  • Back pain.
  • Bloating.
  • Change in bladder or bowel habits.
  • Feeling full quickly while eating.
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain.

 

Four stages:

  • Stage 1: Cancer cells are only within one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes.
  • Stage 2: Cancer cells have spread to other pelvic organs.
  • Stage 3: One or both of the following are present:
    • Cancer cells have spread beyond the pelvis to the abdominal lining.
    • Cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes in the back of the abdomen.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have spread outside the peritoneal cavity.

 

Uterine Cancer

If you are post-menopausal and experience abnormal vaginal bleeding for more than two weeks, see your health care provider. This is a warning sign of uterine cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 54,870 women will be diagnosed, and 10,170 will die. The most common type is called endometrial cancer.

 

Risk factors:

  • Being older than 50.
  • Having close family members with colon, ovarian or uterine cancer.
  • Having trouble getting pregnant, or having fewer than five periods the year prior to entering menopause.
  • Obesity.
  • Taking estrogen without progesterone as part of a hormone replacement regimen.
  • Taking Tamoxifen.

 

There are no screening tests. If you are experiencing symptoms, your health care provider may order an endometrial biopsy or transvaginal ultrasound to rule out uterine cancer.

 

Four stages:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells are only found in the surface layer of cells of the endometrium.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells are only growing in the uterus.
  • Stage 2: Cancer cells have spread into the supporting connective tissue of the cervix.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells have spread outside the uterus or into nearby tissues in the pelvic area.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have spread to the inner surface of the urinary bladder or the rectum, to lymph nodes in the groin and/or to distant organs.

 

Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers

The human papillomavirus is the biggest risk factor for developing vaginal and vulvar cancers. The virus affects young women and is less common in women over age 30. The American Cancer Society estimates that 4,070 women will be diagnosed with vaginal cancer, and 910 will die. 5,150 women will be diagnosed with vulvar cancer according to estimates, and 1,080 will die.

 

Additional risk factors include:

  • Having cervical precancer or cervical cancer.
  • Having chronic vulvar itching or burning.
  • Having HIV or another immune disorder.
  • Smoking.

 

There are no screening tests, and vaginal cancer doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in its early stages. However, if you have one or more risk factors, talk with your health care provider.

 

Signs or Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
  • Changes in bladder or bowel habits.
  • Pelvic pain, especially during urination or sex.

 

Signs or Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer:

  • Bleeding, burning or itching on the vulva.
  • Lumps, sores or ulcers that don’t go away.
  • Pelvic pain, especially during urination or sex.
  • Skin color changes.
  • Skin changes.

 

Four Stages of Vaginal Cancer:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells are only in the top layer of cells lining the vagina.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells have grown through the top layer of cells.
  • Stage 2: Cancer cells have spread to the connective tissues next to the vagina.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells have spread to the pelvic walls.
  • Sage 4: Cancer cells have spread to nearby organs and lymph nodes.

 

Four stages of Vulvar Cancer:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells are on the surface of the skin of the vulva.
  • Stage 1: Cancer cells are found in the vulva or the perineum or both.
  • Stage 2: Cancer cells have grown outside the vulva or perineum to the anus or lower third of the vagina or urethra.
  • Stage 3: Cancer cells are growing into the anus, lower vagina or lower urethra.
  • Stage 4: Cancer cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes or to nearby tissues.

 

Gynecological cancers impact women of every age. If you are having symptoms that last longer than two weeks, see your health care provider and get checked out. The time you spend in the stirrups just might save your life.