Cancer is a disease that can affect almost any part of your body. Normally, your body grows new cells to replace old ones. When you have cancer, your body creates too many new cells and does not get rid of the old ones. These extra cells can create a tumor. Some tumors stop growing: these are called benign tumors. Tumors that don’t stop growing are called cancer. Gynecologic cancer is any type of cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs.
There are six main types of gynecologic cancer:
- Cervical cancer. This type of cancer starts in your cervix, which is at the lower end of the womb (uterus).
- Ovarian cancer. This type of cancer starts in your ovaries, located on each side of the uterus.
- Endometrial cancer (ehn-doh-MEE-tree-UHL). This type of cancer starts in the lining of the of the uterus, and is sometimes called uterine cancer.
- Uterine cancer. This type of cancer starts in your uterus, the part of your body where a baby grows when you are pregnant.
- Vaginal cancer. This type of cancer starts in the vagina, which connects the uterus and the outside of the body.
- Vulvar cancer. This type of cancer starts in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs.
Symptoms of gynecologic cancer vary depending on the part of your body where the cancer is. You might not have any symptoms right away, but if you do have symptoms and think you might have a gynecologic cancer, you should talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Symptoms of a gynecologic cancer can include:
- Vaginal bleeding or discharge that is not normal
- Feeling full too quickly after you eat or having a hard time eating
- Pain or pressure in your pelvis
- Pain in your back or abdomen
- Itching, burning, or pain in your vulva
- Changes in your vulvar color or skin, such as a rash, sores, or warts
You should talk to your healthcare provider if you have any of these warning signs for more than two weeks.
Other diseases can cause some of the same symptoms as gynecologic cancer, but are not usually cancerous. These include:
- An ovarian cyst. This is a small, fluid-filled sac that grows on or in your ovary. Most of these cysts are non-cancerous, but they can sometimes become cancerous, especially if you are older. If your healthcare provider finds an ovarian cyst they may remove it with surgery, do imaging tests to take pictures of the cyst, or wait and see if the cyst grows or changes.
- Uterine fibroids (FY-broyds). These are muscle cells that grow in and around the uterus. These growths usually don’t cause any symptoms, but can sometimes cause pain, bleeding, or urinating (peeing) more often than normal.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you have signs or symptoms that are not normal for you, especially if they last longer than two weeks. If you have vaginal bleeding that is not normal, talk to your healthcare provider right away.
There are many causes of cancer, and sometimes there is no clear cause. However, some factors are known to increase your risk of gynecological cancer. These include:
- HPV (human papilloma virus). HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
- Smoking can increase your risk of cervical cancer.
- Uterine cancer is more likely if you are obese, have never been pregnant, have never taken birth control, have polycystic (PAH-lee-SYS-tick) ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or if you have a family history of Lynch syndrome.
- Ovarian cancer is more likely in older women, or women who have never been pregnant, are obese, have a family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or colon cancer, have never taken oral contraceptives, have taken androgens (male hormones), or have taken estrogen therapy without progesterone.
A screening is a test that is used to look for a disease before you have any symptoms. Cancer screenings can help your healthcare provider find your cancer early, which leads to better treatment. Of all the gynecologic cancers, there is only a screening test for cervical cancer. The Pap smear can find pre-cancers, cells in your cervix that might become cervical cancer.
Your healthcare provider may also give you an HPV test that looks for HPV infection, a common sexually transmitted infection that can increase your risk of certain types of gynecologic cancer.
If your healthcare provider thinks you already have a gynecologic cancer that can’t be detected with the Pap smear, they may use one of these procedures to look for cancer in your body:
- Imaging tests. Tests like CT scans, MRIs, x-rays, and ultrasounds let your healthcare provider take pictures or video of your body so they can look for cancer in the areas where you are having a problem.
- Endoscope. An endoscope is a small tube with a tiny camera that lets your healthcare provider see inside your body.
- Biopsy. During your biopsy, your healthcare provider removes a small piece of tissue from your body in the area where you might have cancer. This tissue is sent to a medical laboratory to test for cancer.
Your options for treating gynecologic cancer depend on what kind of cancer you have. Your healthcare provider might recommend surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy , or other treatment options depending on where your cancer is and how much it has grown (its stage).
- Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy x-rays or radioactive particles to kill the cancer cells in your body.
- Chemotherapy (KEE-mo-THER-up-ee). This treatment uses anticancer medicines that are injected into your veins or given to you by mouth.
- Surgery. Your healthcare provider may call for surgery to physically remove the cancer from your body. Surgery options for cervical cancer include:
- Cryosurgery (CRY-oh-SUHR-jur-ee). Your surgeon places a very cold piece of metal directly on the cancer cells in your body. This kills the cancer cells by freezing them.
- Laser surgery. A focused laser beam is used to burn away cancer cells or remove a small piece of tissue for study.
- Conization (kohn-is-AY-shun). A cone-shaped piece of tissue is removed from the area where you have cancer using surgical knife or a thin wire. This surgery is used to take a sample of your cervix for the healthcare provider to study.
- Hysterectomy (HISS-tur-ECT-uh-me). Your healthcare provider may recommend a hysterectomy for cervical or uterine cancer. In a simple hysterectomy, your uterus and cervix are both removed but the surgeon leaves the ovaries and fallopian tubes, unless they need to be removed as well.
There are many steps you can take to help prevent gynecologic cancers, or to find these kinds of cancer early on. Finding cancer early can improve your treatment options.
- The HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent your risk of developing certain types of gynecologic cancer. This vaccine should be given to both boys and girls, and can be given to men and women until age 26.
- There are many preventable risk factors for all cancers, including gynecologic cancers, that you can avoid:
- Contact with chemicals that cause cancer (carcinogens)
- There are other risk factors that you can’t control, but you should still tell your healthcare provider if any of these apply to you, so that they can be aware of your cancer risk when they meet with you:
- Family history of gynecologic or other cancers
- If you have had cancer anywhere in your body before
- If you have HPV