Ten Facts About Gynecologic Cancer
by Pat Battaglia
Serving those with gynecologic cancers is an honor and a privilege. We have learned a great deal from the courageous souls who have faced one of these diseases. In line with our mission to provide education here are some of the facts on gynecologic cancer.
This Article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Voices of the Ribbon.
1. Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that that begins in one of the female reproductive organs. This group of diseases includes:
- Cervical cancer
- Endometrial cancer, also called uterine cancer
- Fallopian tube cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Peritoneal cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
2. Approximately 98,000 women are diagnosed with one of these diseases each year, compared to about 230,000 for breast cancer.
3. Gynecologic cancer has a number of signs and symptoms. These may include unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge; pelvic pain or pressure; abdominal or back pain; bloating; feeling full too fast or having trouble eating; urinating more often and more urgently; painful intercourse; itching, burning, or tenderness of the vulva; and changes in vulva color or skin. These and other symptoms can be caused by conditions besides cancer. It’s worth talking with your doctor about any changes in your body that last two weeks or longer.
4. Endometrial (uterine) cancer is the most common GYN cancer. It is also the fourth most common cancer in US women overall.
5. Each gynecologic cancer has different risk factors. Some, such as taking estrogen without progesterone, obesity, and smoking are controllable. However, many risk factors are outside our control. Age, family history, personal health history, Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, and exposure to DES in utero are some of these.
6. The daughters of women who used a synthetic form of estrogen called DES (diethylstilbestrol) while pregnant have a higher risk of developing clear cell adenocarcinoma of the cervix and vagina than unexposed women. (DES use during pregnancy was discontinued in 1971.) However, this type of cancer is still rare; approximately one per one thousand women exposed to DES in utero develops it.
7. Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer with a screening test and a vaccine. It can be detected early through Pap tests and HPV (human papilloma virus) testing. The HPV vaccine protects against certain forms of the virus that can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Oncologists and scientists attribute the large decrease in the number of deaths caused by cervical cancer in the last forty years to these measures.
8. If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend genetic counseling and testing. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes aren’t the only concerns when it comes to gynecologic cancer. Approximately twenty-four genes have been associated with a greater chance of developing ovarian cancer alone. Genetic testing may not be useful for everyone, but it is important to know your family history and talk about your risks with your providers.
9. It is not normal for post-menopausal women to have vaginal bleeding or spotting. Any vaginal bleeding after menopause should be reported to your doctor. The cause may be harmless and easily treated, but medical follow-up is always advisable in this circumstance.
10. A gynecologic oncologist is a subspecialist who treats women with reproductive tract cancers. Initially trained as obstetrician/gynecologists, they undergo specialized education in the effective forms of treatment for gynecologic cancers: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and experimental treatments. They provide care for patients throughout all phases of treatment.