What You Should Know About Gynecologic Cancer
September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn about the risks of these types of cancer and options for prevention and screening. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and those risks increase with age. The information below outlines basic facts every woman should know.
Types of Cancer
Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs.
- Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (womb).
- Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus.
- Uterine cancer begins in the uterus, the pear-shaped organ in a woman’s pelvis where babies grow during pregnancy.
- Vaginal 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 begins in the vulva, which is the skin around the vagina and includes the labia and the clitoris.
Talk to Your Doctor
It is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you, so you can notice changes or symptoms. It’s equally important to share this information with your doctor. Each gynecologic cancer has its own signs and symptoms, some have very few symptoms, and women may experience all of these signs in different ways.
Know the Symptoms
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, which includes heavy or irregular periods or bleeding after menopause, can be a symptom of many gynecologic cancers.
- Difficulty eating, bloating, getting full too fast, and abdominal or back pain may be signs of ovarian cancer.
- Pelvic pain and pressure may be signs of ovarian and uterine cancers.
- A frequent and urgent need to urinate and/or constipation are common symptoms of ovarian and vaginal cancers.
- Itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva – and changes in the skin of the vulva, such as a rash, sores, or warts – may be a sign of vulvar cancer.
HPV and Gynecologic Cancers
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of related viruses that can be linked to certain types of cancers; including gynecologic cancers such as cervical, vaginal and vulvar. Infection with high-risk HPV does not usually cause symptoms, which is why regular cervical cancer screening is important. There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause health problems, including genital warts and cancers. But there are vaccines that can stop these health problems from happening.
- HPV infection is common
- Both men and women can become infected with HPV and develop HPV-caused cancers.
- Most HPV infections don’t cause cancer
- Sometimes HPV infections are not successfully controlled by your immune system. When a high-risk HPV infection persists for many years, it can lead to cell changes that, if untreated, may get worse over time and become cancer.
- Although most women with cervical cancer have the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, not all women with an HPV infection will develop cervical cancer. Some HPV infections go away without treatment.
HPV vaccines can prevent infection with disease-causing HPV types, preventing many HPV-related cancers and cases of genital warts. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
HPV vaccination is recommended for girls and boys, at the age of 11-12, but it can be given starting at age 9. The vaccine also is recommended for all people, through age 26, if they are not already vaccinated. However, some adults age 27-45 who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections. If the vaccination is given before age 15, a two-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6-12 months apart. People who start the series after their 15th birthday receive three shots.
HPV vaccination prevents new infections, but does not treat existing HPV infections or diseases. This is why the vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV.
Some gynecologic cancers develop because of genetic mutations, or changes in DNA, that can be passed down in families. Talk to your doctor if breast or gynecologic cancer runs in your family, as you may qualify for special testing to see if you have one of these genetic mutations. If you know about the mutation, there are ways that the cancer can prevented or detected early, when it’s easier to treat.
Screening for cervical cancer is an important part of routine health care for women.
The goal of screening for cervical cancer is to find precancerous cell changes at an early stage before they become cancer and when treatment can prevent cancer from developing. You should be screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.
Cervical cancer is the only HPV-caused cancer that has FDA-approved screening tests that use HPV and Pap testing. The Pap test helps to identify cell changes caused by high-risk HPV types that could cause cancer. An HPV test looks for HPV infection.
If your doctor recommends a screening test, that does not necessarily mean they think you have cancer. Also, if a screening test result is abnormal, you may still need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer.
Click here to learn more about gynecologic cancer services at UAB Medicine.