Gynecologic cancers are diseases that occur within the female reproductive system including the cervix, vulva, ovaries, uterus and vagina. Although not as common as breast cancer, all women, especially as they age, are at risk for developing gynecologic cancers.
Gynecologic Cancer Symptoms
Gynecologic Cancer Symptoms
Symptoms of gynecologic cancers are not always obvious and may masquerade as other less serious problems. The symptoms can also vary depending on the individual and the type of illness. While there are some telltale signs, the key is really to know your body and know when something doesn’t look or feel the way it normally does.
Be sure to report the following symptoms to your general practitioner or gynecologist:
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, such as vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or if you are post-menopause
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area, hip bones, abdomen or back, particularly after urinating or having intercourse
- Bloating, feeling full too quickly or trouble eating
- Changes in bathroom habits such as more frequent urination, constipation or blood in the stool
- Itching, burning or bleeding on the vulva (exterior genitals)
- Skin color changes, rashes or warts on the vulva
- Sores, lumps or ulcers on the vulva that do not go away
Gynecologic Cancer Risks
Risk factors for gynecologic cancers vary depending on the type, however, medical history, medicines, family history, age, and lifestyle can all increase your chances of developing these types of cancer.
- Medical History: A history of chronic health issues like diabetes or high blood glucose, hypertension or high blood pressure, premenopausal breast cancer and persistent HPV infections all create increased risk for gynecologic cancers. Additionally, late menopause (after the age of 52) and some genital skin conditions also be factors.
- Medicine: Long-term use of hormone medications like birth control and taking estrogen without progesterone are both known causes of gynecologic cancers. Your risk also goes up if you are on some medications used to treat breast cancer.
- Family History: Family medical history plays a significant role when it comes to risks for gynecologic cancers. Alert your physician to any family history of fallopian tube cancer, primary peritoneal cancer, premenopausal breast cancer, male breast cancer and both colon and endometrial cancers. Due to an inherited gene mutation, Ashkenazi Jewish women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer at a much higher rate than other women.
- Age: Cervical cancer generally affects women between 30 and 50 but can be found in younger women as well. For other gynecologic cancers, the risk goes up with age, particularly after menopause.
- Lifestyle: Smoking, which weakens the immune system, and unprotected sex can cause frequent human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that commonly lead to certain types of cancer. Not maintaining a healthy weight can also lead to gynecologic cancers.
Gynecologic Cancer Diagnosis & Staging
Regular yearly visits to your gynecologist allow your doctor to monitor any anatomical changes or new symptoms you may be experiencing and are important to your overall health.
During your routine annual exam or in response to your own health concerns, the doctor may perform a Pap test (now also combined with an HPV test) that will be sent to a lab to ensure the absence of pre-cancerous cells. If these test results come back positive, your gynecologist will recommend additional observation, tests and lab work to determine if there is a cancer diagnosis and how advanced it is (known as staging). This will ultimately be used in determining a treatment plan. These tests may include:
Blood tests allow the doctor to see if there are any “tumor markers” or high levels of proteins that would indicate the presence of a tumor.
An endosocopy, though not use for all gynecological cancer screenings, may be used for some diagnoses. During this procedure, the doctor will insert a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope through the vagina to check for abnormalities in the reproductive system.
If the doctor discovers suspected cancer through the endoscopy or test results, the gynecologist will extract tissue or cells for testing in a lab. The procedure for getting tissue from the cervix, for example, is called a colposcopy. The biopsy is used not just to identify the existence of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. It may also be used for additional testing to determine the best treatment options.
Imaging tests use sound waves, x-rays, magnetic fields, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body, including computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan, ultrasound, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
A doctor may require genetic testing if there is a family history of gynecologic cancer or a gene mutation often seen in Ashkenazi Jewish women that often leads to ovarian cancer.