Gynecological cancers: what every woman needs to know
There are five main types of cancer that affect a woman’s genital tract. Knowing what they are and what symptoms they cause is critical for your health.
“We want women to be aware of these diseases so they can advocate for themselves when they feel that something worrisome is happening. Early detection gives us the best chance to treat these cancers,” says Joshua Cohen, MD, UCLA gynecologic oncologist.
Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the narrow lower end of the uterus. It is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted.
“Cervical cancer can usually be detected early with the use of routine Pap smear screenings. Pap smears allow us to find pre-cancers before they become cervical cancer,” says Dr. Cohen.
“The best way to prevent cervical cancer is by receiving the HPV vaccine. I encourage all parents to vaccinate their daughters and sons,” Dr. Cohen says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccinating young women through age 26, and young men through age 21. In addition, immune-comprised young men, transgender men and women, and men who have sex with men should get vaccinated up to age 26.
Symptoms: There are no symptoms of early-stage cervical cancer. Vaginal bleeding, bloody discharge or pelvic pain may accompany advanced cancer.
Diagnosis: A sample of cervical tissue will be tested to identify the presence of any cancerous cells. Your doctor may collect the sample either by scraping cells from the cervix or cutting a section of tissue for testing under a microscope (biopsy). This is a non-invasive procedure that does not typically cause discomfort.
Uterine (endometrial) cancer
Uterine cancer starts in the lining of the uterus, called the endometrium. This common cancer is also called endometrial cancer. It often affects women around the time of menopause.
“Use of birth control pills can help regulate periods for young women and lower the chances of uterine cancer in some cases,” says Dr. Cohen.
Symptoms: Abnormally heavy bleeding around the time of menopause or bleeding after menopause may indicate endometrial cancer.
Diagnosis: An ultrasound screening or a biopsy of the endometrium – relatively quick diagnostic tests that typically occur in your doctor’s office – can identify whether tumors and cancerous cells are present.
Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries, which are the small organs that contain a woman’s eggs. It commonly affects women over age 40.
Prevention: “Ovarian cancer is an aggressive tumor that unfortunately is often detected in its late stages. If a young woman is considering contraception, oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) are an excellent option as we know they can reduce a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Cohen. “There is also new data emerging that suggests removing or sealing the fallopian tubes may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.”
Symptoms: Pain and pressure in the lower abdominal area and bloating are non-specific, but common symptoms of cancers involving the ovaries. “I encourage all women to be aware of what’s happening with their bodies. If they are experiencing symptoms that are persistent, such as bloating, decreased appetite or abdominal pain, they should schedule an evaluation with their doctor,” says Dr. Cohen.
Diagnosis: A pelvic ultrasound and some blood tests can detect ovarian cancer. In some cases, surgical removal of ovarian tissue for a biopsy is necessary.
Vulvar and vaginal cancers
Vulvar cancer occurs on the skin that borders the urethra, vaginal opening, clitoris and labia. Vaginal cancer occurs in the cells of the lining of your vagina, which is the birth canal. Both of these cancers are very rare.
“The HPV vaccine is designed to prevent an infection that is the most common cause of vulvar and vaginal cancers, so it’s important for young men and women to be vaccinated when they reach the appropriate age,” says Dr. Cohen.
Symptoms: Itching, burning, pain or change in skin color not relieved by medications.
Diagnosis: Removing a sample of vulvar or vaginal tissue for a biopsy is necessary to diagnose these cancers accurately.
Gynecologic oncologists treat cancers of the female genital tract
Treatment for gynecologic cancers depends on the type, size and spread of cancer. According to Dr. Cohen, common treatments for gynecologic cancers include:
- The surgical removal of cancerous tissue or organs. “In many cases, laparoscopic or robotic surgery is available and offers smaller incisions and potentially faster recovery,” he says.
- Chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells in one location or throughout the body.
- Radiation therapy to deliver targeted beams of radiation to kill cancer cells.
- A combination of treatments to minimize the likelihood of cancer recurrence.
UCLA gynecologic oncologists specialize in preventing, identifying and treating gynecological cancers. They provide individualized care for women who have a diagnosed cancer or who are at high risk for developing cancer. Patients can request an appointment online or by calling 310-794-7274.