Each year approximately 89,000 women are told they have gynecological cancer. Gynecological cancer affects a woman's reproductive organs, and all women are at some risk of developing gynecological cancer. While there's an understandable fear surrounding gynecological cancer, there are things every woman can do to empower herself. Education, prevention, and testing are at the core of maintaining good health and achieving early detection. While there are many types of gynecological cancers, the following three types are among the most common.
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all gynecological cancers. Each year approximately 21,000 women discover they have ovarian cancer, and of those, 14,000 cases prove fatal. Ovarian cancer can affect the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and the peritoneum – the tissue that covers the organs in the abdomen. About 90% of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over forty years old. Currently, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, even with a Pap test (also known as a Pap smear). Because of this, it is essential to report any unusual symptoms to your doctor immediately. Early detection is the best defense when treating ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Back or abdominal pain
- Frequent urination or constipation
- Feeling very full even if you haven't eaten a lot
In addition to age, women are at increased risk if they have:
- A family history of ovarian cancer
- Previous diagnoses of breast, uterine, or colorectal cancer
- Trouble getting pregnant or never given birth
- Genetic abnormalities
- Eastern European descent
There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer. However, taking birth control pills, having the fallopian tubes tied, having both ovaries removed, undergoing a hysterectomy, and breast feeding are linked to a reduced risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Cervical cancer was once the deadliest gynecological cancer. However, the development of a cervical cancer screening has drastically reduced the fatality rate over the last forty years. Currently, women that get Pap tests are also screened for cervical cancer. The screenings are so effective for early detection that cervical cancer is now considered highly treatable and curable.
In addition to Pap tests, testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) can detect cervical cancer early. HPV may cause cells in the cervix to change – a possible precursor to cervical cancer. There is also an HPV vaccine that may reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.
Like ovarian cancer, the most common symptom of cervical cancer is unusual bleeding or discharge. Women should not delay reporting unusual symptoms to their doctor. However, these symptoms may not appear until the very late stages of cervical cancer. This makes routine Pap tests imperative. Early detection can be life-saving. It's important to note - women that smoke, have a compromised immune system, use birth control for 5 or more years, and have had more than three children are also at increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
Nearly 51,000 women receive a uterine cancer diagnosis each year. All women, except those that have had a hysterectomy, are at risk of developing uterine cancer. There are two types of uterine cancer – endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma. Endometrial cancer forms in the lining of the uterus, while uterine sarcoma forms in the muscles and tissue of the uterus.
Unlike cervical cancer, uterine cancer cannot be tested with a Pap test. Testing for uterine cancer is more complex, making self-reporting any symptoms a vital part of early detection. Symptoms include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, and pain or pressure in the pelvis.
A woman has an increased risk of cervical cancer if she is:
- Over 50 years old
- Taking estrogen
- Having trouble getting pregnant
- Having less than 5 periods per year
- Taking tamoxifen – a drug to treat certain types of breast cancer
- Related to someone with a history of uterine, colon, or ovarian cancer
While gynecological cancers are a serious health risk for women, there are effective steps each woman can take to reduce her risks. Reporting symptoms immediately, regular testing when possible, and changing unhealthy behaviors can be life-saving. The team at Augusta Health is ready to answer any of your questions about gynecological cancer. Contact the Cancer Center if you have any questions.