What Every Woman Should Know About Gynecologic Cancers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 94,00 women are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer each year. September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, a time to shed light on these cancers and further education.

Gynecologic cancer refers to five types of cancers that start in the reproductive organs, including cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancer. For many of these cancers, the symptoms may seem common, and therefore can be easy to dismiss. But by being in tune with your body, knowing your risk factors, and staying on top of your well-woman exam, you can help detect possible cancer early, and potentially save your life.

Here’s what you need to know to about the risks, symptoms, and prevention for each type of gynecologic cancer.

Cervical Cancer

Good news: cervical cancer can be preventable.

The highest risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, about 80% of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives, but may not even know that they have it.

Fortunately, the HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) is over 99% effective in protecting against nine high-risk strains, seven that cause cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for girls and boys aged 11 or 12, and for everyone through age 26, ideally before a first sexual encounter. In addition to vaccination, the best way to protect yourself from HPV is by practicing safe sex.

The second part of protection against cervical cancer is screening. Regular screening through a Pap test can help detect any cervical precancer or cancer early on. The American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 25-65 with a cervix receive a Pap test every 3 years, regardless of their vaccination status.

Ovarian Cancer

Every 23 minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is often known as the “silent” cancer because its symptoms – bloating, feelings of fullness, pelvic or abdominal pain – may seem commonplace.

That’s why in addition to knowing the symptoms, it’s incredibly important to be aware of your risk factors.

Ovarian cancer risk increases with age. It’s rare for a woman to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer younger than 40, with most cases developing after menopause. However, it’s also important to understand your family history.  About 20-25 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary connection to the disease. Inherited genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can contribute to ovarian cancer risk.

Remember to listen to your body. If you’re experiencing unusual pain or bloating that persists for more than two weeks, contact your doctor. He/she can perform an exam and recommend any additional diagnostic testing that could aid in evaluating the risk of your symptoms.

Uterine Cancer

Uterine (endometrial) cancer is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system. Most uterine cancers begin in the lining of the uterus, also known as the endometrium. More rarely, the cancer may develop within the actual muscle of the uterine wall.

Obesity is of one of the greatest risk factors for uterine cancer due to its link to hormone changes. Fat tissue can impact a woman’s estrogen levels, which can increase her risk. Research shows endometrial cancer is twice as common in women with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9 and 3 times more common in women who are obese (BMI <30).

As with all cancers, risk increases as we age. Uterine cancer is more likely after menopause, though the exact cause is unknown.

There are no routine screening tests for uterine cancer. However, one of the most common symptoms of uterine cancer is vaginal bleeding. If you’re experiencing bleeding after menopause, you should check with your gynecologist.

Following a low-fat diet and engaging in regular exercise can help stave off obesity and may help to prevent uterine cancer.

Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers

Vaginal and vulvar cancers are less common, but it’s still important to be aware of them.

Vaginal cancer is typically associated with painful intercourse and erratic bleeding. Pain, soreness, or tenderness in the vulva, an open sore in the vulva, and a burning pain when passing urine can all be symptoms of vulvar cancer.

Like cervical cancer, a prior infection with HPV can increase your risk of developing vaginal or vulvar cancer. Smoking can also significantly increase your risk.

Bottom Line

Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that can be screened for. However, there are warning signs associated with the other cancers that can help to detect the cancers in earlier stages when they are less likely to spread and easier to treat. Together with knowledge, awareness, and ongoing scientific research and treatments, we can protect ourselves and future generations of women against gynecologic cancers.

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