Overview of gynecological cancer
Gynecological cancers are cancers in the organs of the female reproductive system, such as the cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus.
If you have gynecological cancer or would like to learn more about it, Dignity Health is here to help. Our oncologists provide high-quality, comprehensive care. Find a Doctor near you to learn more about treatment options.
While gynecological cancer can cause some symptoms in the early stages, they are often missed since they mimic other common conditions.
The earlier cancer is identified, the easier it will be to treat. In order to get an early diagnosis, it is essential to discuss any unusual symptoms with your doctor as soon as possible.
The signs and symptoms of gynecological cancer depend on the specific cancer and the organ affected. The most common ones include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Back pain
- Bloating around the lower abdomen
- Unusual or extreme pain or cramping in the lower abdomen
- Changes in urination or bowel movements
- Itching, burning, or skin color changes in the vulva
- Abnormal lumps or bumps around the vulva
- Pain during sex
Gynecologic cancers happen when cells lining one of the reproductive organs change, and these abnormal cells begin to multiply and spread.
Research is ongoing, but health experts still do not have a full understanding of the cause of cancer. Factors such as genetics, exposure to some STIs like HPV, smoking, and environmental exposures do make gynecological cancers more likely to occur.
There are many types of gynecological cancer, affecting various parts of the female reproductive system:
- Cervical cancer
- Gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD), which can be cancerous but is usually not
- Ovarian, fallopian tube, and peritoneal cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Risk factors, meaning factors that increase the likelihood of cancer, vary somewhat for each type of gynecological cancer.
Experts do know that the risk becomes greater with age.
The levels of some hormones can also influence gynecological cancers (as well as some other cancers, such as breast cancer). Excess estrogen exposure is strongly linked to the development of cancer in the uterus, and this is true whether it occurs naturally or is prescribed through post-menopause hormone replacement therapy.
A family history of cancer plays a role in some types of gynecological cancer, including ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. In other words, having an immediate family member like a mother, aunt, or grandmother with gynecological cancer may increase your risk.
For cervical cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a primary risk factor.
Other lifestyle and environmental factors may also increase cancer risk, such as:
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Exposure to radiation such as through previous cancer treatment
- Exposure to environmental toxins such as heavy metals
- Being overweight or obese
Many gynecological cancers can be successfully treated when they are caught early in their progression. The most important prevention method for gynecological cancer is to attend regular appointments with your OBGYN or gynecology specialist.
Other helpful steps you can take to reduce your risk include:
- Getting the HPV vaccine (“Gardasil”), as recommended by your doctor
- Practicing abstinence or safer sexual habits
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking or stopping smoking
- Speaking with your doctor about hormone therapy options
In rare cases, women who are at high risk for gynecological cancers (i.e., ovarian cancer through family history or other factors) may opt to undergo elective, preventive surgery. A hysterectomy (which removes the ovaries) is an example of an operation that might reduce the risk of developing cancer. Speak with your doctor if you believe this might be a good option for you.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.