What Is Gynecologic Cancer?
Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs. Five main types of cancer affect a woman’s reproductive organs are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. As a group, they are referred to as gynecologic cancer. The sixth type of gynecologic cancer is a very rare fallopian tube cancer.
The five gynecologic cancers begin in different places within a woman’s pelvis, which is the area below the stomach and in between the hip bones. Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs and symptoms, different risk factors and different prevention strategies. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and the risk increases with age. When gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
Types of Gynecologic Cancer
- Cervical cancer –This cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. (The uterus is also called the womb.)
- Ovarian cancer–This cancer begins in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus.
- Uterine cancer–This cancer begins in the uterus, the pear-shaped organ in a woman’s pelvis where the baby grows when she is pregnant.
- Vaginal cancer – This cancer begins in the vagina, which is the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
- Vulvar cancer – This cancer begins in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs.
Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs and symptoms, different risk factors (things that may increase your chance of getting a disease), and different prevention strategies. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and the risk increases with age. When gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
What Are the Symptoms of Gynecologic Cancer?
There is no way to know for sure if you will get gynecologic cancer. That’s why it is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you, so you can recognize the warning signs or symptoms of gynecologic cancer.
If you have vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you, talk to a doctor right away. You should also see a doctor if you have any other warning signs that last for two weeks or longer and are not normal for you. Symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see a doctor.
Signs and symptoms are not the same for everyone and each gynecologic cancer (cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers) has its own signs and symptoms.
Watch out the symptoms of cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge is common on all gynecologic cancers except vulvar cancer.
- Feeling full too quickly or difficulty eating, bloating, and abdominal or back pain are common only for ovarian cancer.
- Pelvic pain or pressure is common for ovarian and uterine cancers.
- More frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation are common for ovarian and vaginal cancers.
- Itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva, and changes in vulva color or skin, such as a rash, sores, or warts, are found only in vulvar cancer.
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A risk factor is any factor that is associated with an increased chance of developing a particular health condition, such as gynecological cancer. There are different types of risk factors, some of which can be modified and some that cannot.
It should be noted that having one or more risk factors does not mean a woman will develop a gynecological cancer. Many women have at least one risk factor but will never develop a gynecological cancer, while others with a gynecological cancer may have had no known risk factors. Even if a woman with a gynecological cancer has a risk factor, it is usually hard to know how much that risk factor contributed to the development of her disease.
The risk factors include:
- increasing age
- having a strong family history
- identified gene mutations
- reproductive history, such as child-bearing
- exposure to hormones – produced by the body or taken as medication
- exposure to diethylstilboestrol (DES) in the womb
- viral infection such as human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- lifestyle factors such as smoking and those leading to excess body weight.
The tests and tools used to diagnose gynecologic cancer depend upon the type and location of the suspected cancer, as well as factors such as the patient’s medical history and overall health status. A detailed diagnosis helps the doctors at Prolife Cancer Centre create the right treatment plan for each patient.
Specialists use the most advanced diagnostic tools available, such as:
- Imaging studies: Including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET)
- Transvaginal ultrasound: Involving the placing of an ultrasound probe into the vagina.
- Endoscopy: Using a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) to visualize parts of the female reproductive system.
- Tissue biopsies and body-fluid samples: Providing small samples of suspicious tissue for UT Southwestern pathologists to evaluate.
- Molecular tissue testing: For determining tumor-specific genes, proteins, and other characteristics.
Staging is the term oncologists use to define where gynecologic cancer is located and how much it has spread. Once the stage of gynecologic cancer is determined, your physician can recommend a particular course of treatment.
Most cancer teams use the system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer, known as the TNM staging system.
T = Tumor: Where is the primary tumor and how large is it?
N = Nodes: Has the tumor spread to nearby lymph nodes?
M = Metastasis: Has cancer spread to other parts of the body?
For each letter, there are five numbered stages, from 0 to 4, depending on how much cancer has spread. The lower the number, the more the cancer cells look like normal cells and the easier they are to treat and cure. A higher number means it has spread more deeply.
The place where cancer originates is called the primary site. Cancer can spread from the primary site to other parts of the body. It’s important to understand that even if gynecologic cancer is found in other parts of your body, it’s still considered gynecologic cancer. For instance, if colon cancer has spread to the liver, it’s called metastatic colon cancer, not liver cancer.
Be sure to talk to your physician about your particular stage of cancer and how that will impact your treatment.
Cancer treatments that use medications are an option for some women with Gynecologic cancer, depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Our gynecologic oncologists might prescribe:
- Chemotherapy: Uses drugs usually injected into a vein or given by mouth, to kill cancer cells.
- Immunotherapy: Involves stimulation of the immune system to help the body better fight gynecologic cancer.
- Hormone therapy: Uses hormones to treat and prevent recurrences of some types of gynecologic cancers.
Intraperitoneal chemotherapy is an intricate and unique treatment that delivers chemotherapy drugs directly into the abdominal cavity through a catheter. Administered in some ovarian cancer cases, it directly targets cancer cells in the abdomen, minimizing drug exposure to healthy tissues. Only highly experienced gynecologic and surgical oncologists are able to offer this type of intense treatment.
Surgical Cancer Treatments
Gynecologic cancer is different for every woman, and surgery is often part of the treatment plan to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Reducing the size of the tumor improves the efficiency of subsequent chemotherapy or radiation therapy because there will be less tumor to treat.
A standard laparoscopic approach or robot-assisted surgery helps patients recover faster, return to their normal lifestyle, or start the next phase of treatment sooner.