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September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month

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Gynecologic cancer occurs when cancer develops in the female reproductive system. There are five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancer.

Many gynecologic cancers do not have symptoms or screenings, and when symptoms do present, it may indicate a later-stage disease. It’s important to pay attention to your body and alert your doctor as soon as possible to any changes that persist and are not normal for you. It’s also important to consider getting the HPV vaccine at a young age to reduce your risk of several cancers, including cervical cancer.

When symptoms of gynecologic cancers do occur, they can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially after sex, abnormal vaginal discharge, pain or pressure in your pelvis, bloating or feeling full quickly while eating, having to pass urine very often and with greater urgency, itching, burning, bleeding, lumps, rash, warts and changes in vulvar color.

Vaccinations
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, causes virtually all cervical cancers, as well as some cancers of the vagina and vulva. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV vaccines are recommended for preteen girls and boys to protect against HPV infection. All kids who are 11 or 12 years old should consider getting the HPV vaccine. Teens who did not get the vaccine or did not get all doses when they were younger should get it before they turn 26.

Risk Factors
Maintaining a healthy weight and staying active can help reduce your chance of getting certain gynecologic cancers, including uterine and ovarian cancers. Also, smoking is a risk factor for cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Make sure to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, avoid smoking and practice safe sex.

Types of Gynecologic Cancers
Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer starts in the cervix. It is the only gynecologic cancer that has a screening, the Pap test. The Pap test is recommended for women between ages 21 and 65. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test.

Cervical cancer occurs most often in women over the age of 30. It is estimated that in 2017, 12,820 women will be diagnosed and 4,210 will die from the disease. Almost all cervical cancers are linked to the HPV virus. Cervical cancers and cervical pre-cancers usually have no symptoms until the cells turn into cancer and invade the deepest parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs. It’s important to remember that the Pap test does not identify other types of gynecologic cancers.

Uterine Cancer
Uterine cancer starts in the uterus and is also known as endometrial cancer. It is the most common gynecologic cancer, and most women who are diagnosed with uterine cancer are over the age of 50. It is estimated that in 2017, 61,380 women will be diagnosed with uterine cancer and 10,920 will die from it.

Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries and is the deadliest of all the gynecologic cancers. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40. It is estimated that in 2017, 22,440 women will be diagnosed and 14,080 will die from the disease.

Vulvar Cancer
Vulvar cancer starts in the vulva and accounts for about 4 percent of cancers of the female reproductive organs. Less than 20 percent of cases are in women younger than age 50, and more than half occur in women over age 70. More than half of all vulvar cancers are linked to HPV.

Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer is the rarest gynecologic cancer; only about 1 of every 1,100 women will develop vaginal cancer in her lifetime.

Treatment for Gynecologic Cancers
If gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is more effective. Surgery, radiation therapy, either alone or in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and hormone therapy are all viable gynecologic cancer treatment options.

Each of the options you and your doctor can choose from has its own distinct advantages. The treatment that is best for you depends on the location and stage of your cancer, as well as your personal preference. Your overall health and whether or not you intend to become pregnant in the future will also be taken into consideration.

The earlier these cancers are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. Thus, it is important to be vigilant with changes in your body and to follow recommendations for Pap testing. ■

Written by: Dan Vongtama, MD, Board Certified Radiation Oncologist with St. Teresa Comprehensive  Cancer Center