Gynecologic Cancers Signs & Symptoms

Organization: Author:
Philip J. Di Saia, MD
90,000 Women are Diagnosed with Gynecologic Cancers
More Than 90,000 Women are Diagnosed with Gynecologic Cancers Each Year. Learn the Signs & Symptoms of These Silent Killers

In America, every six minutes a woman is diagnosed with gynecologic cancer. It is estimated that there will be 91,730 new cases diagnosed in the United States this year alone - sadly resulting in a predicted 28,080 deaths. Some of these gynecologic cancers have been called “silent killers” because women are often unaware of the signs and symptoms associated with these cancers and do not catch them until it is too late.

What are Gynecologic Cancers?

Gynecologic cancer is an uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells that originate from the reproductive organs. There are several types of gynecologic cancers which include cervical, gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD), primary peritoneal, ovarian, uterine/endometrial, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

Are Gynecologic Cancers Preventable?

  • Regular screenings and self-examinations can result in the detection of certain types of gynecologic cancers in their earlier stages, increasing the likelihood of successful treatment and the possibility for a complete cure.
  • It is important to be aware of your family’s history to help determine if you may have a gene that makes you more susceptible to cancer - knowing can increase the chance of prevention or early diagnosis.
  • Lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise can have a significant role in the prevention of cancer.

Even still, every woman is at risk for developing a gynecologic cancer. It is important to learn what types of cancers there are and also know their signs and symptoms so you can be proactive in your health.

Cervical Cancer

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death by cancer in women. In the United States alone, 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.

The cervix has two main types of cells: squamous and glandular cells.  Abnormal changes in either of these two types of cells can result in cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by a persistent infection with a virus called Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Symptoms of Cervical Cancer

Women do not typically display any symptoms until the cells have turned into cancer and enter the deepest parts of the cervix or other pelvic organs.
Common symptoms in women who have developed cervical cancer include:

  • Vaginal discharge
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal odor
  • Pain
  • Bleeding following sexual intercourse

Prevention of Cervical Cancer

Especially important to note is the fact that cervical cancer can be prevented by regular screenings and a preventive vaccination. Since nearly all cervical cancers are caused by a persistent infection with HPV, vaccinating women and young girls before they are sexually active can lead to the greatest prevention of pre-cancer and cancer. Also, routine Pap tests to screen for HPV or signs of cervical cancer can be critical to early detection.

Ovarian Cancer

There are three types of ovarian cancer: epithelial ovarian cancer, germ cell cancer and stromal cell cancer. Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common, accounting for 85 to 89 percent of ovarian cancers. It ranks fourth in cancer deaths among women, causing more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer.

Symptoms of Epithelial Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer has often been called the “silent killer” because its symptoms were not thought to develop until it was nearly too late. However, recent studies show that certain symptoms are much more common in women with ovarian cancer than women who do not have ovarian cancer.

These symptoms include:

  • Extreme, sudden onset bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

It is important to understand that the symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are common and often times are the result of other causes. However, women with ovarian cancer reported that these symptoms were persistent and a change from their body’s normal behavior. Therefore, the frequency and/or number of these symptoms are the key factors in diagnosing ovarian cancer.

Uterine/Endometrial Cancer

Uterine cancer also known as endometrial cancer, is the most common type of gynecologic cancer. Some risk factors for uterine/endometrial cancer include the use of estrogen without progesterone, diabetes, hypertension, tamoxifen use and later age of Menopause. However, one of the most common risk factors for developing uterine/endometrial cancer is obesity. Women who are obese have higher circulating levels of estrogen, which increases their risk for uterine/endometrial cancer.

Symptoms of Endometrial Cancer

The most common warning sign for uterine/endometrial cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Recognition of this symptom can allow for early diagnosis and treatment.

Other symptoms include:

  • Vaginal bleeding or spotting after menopause
  • New onset of heavy menstrual periods or bleeding between periods
  • A watery pink or white discharge from the vagina
  • Two or more weeks of persistent pain in the lower abdomen or pelvic area
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest forms of gynecologic cancers usually affecting women between 50 to 70-years-old. Due to the fact that vaginal cancers are often associated with HPV, vaginal cancer can be prevented by vaccinating women and young girls before they are sexually active.

Symptoms of Vaginal Cancer

Typically symptoms of vaginal cancer do not show until the cancer is more advance. These symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • An obvious mass
  • Pain during intercourse

Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is a rare, abnormal growth on the external female genitalia, typically occurring in elderly women. Fortunately, vulvar cancer is very curable when it is detected at an early stage. Treatment can, however, have substantial adverse effects on a patients’ sexual function, bladder and rectal function, as well as their body image.

Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer

Women with vulvar cancer often experience symptoms including:

  • A red, pink or white bump(s) that has a raw or wart-like surface
  • A white area that feels rough
  • Persistent itching
  • Pain, or a burning feeling while urinating
  • Bleeding and discharge not associated with menstruation
  • An open sore or ulcer that lasts more than a month

Prevention and Early Detection of Vulvar Cancer

Protection against infection from HPV can reduce the risk of vulvar cancer by vaccinating women and young girls before they are sexually active. Also, examination of the vulva for changes by women at home or by their gynecologist can lead to the detection of pre-invasive or early vulvar cancer.

A Call for Action - Be Proactive: Know Your Body

Although many of the symptoms associated with gynecologic cancers discussed above may seem common and often times are due to other causes, it is important to be in tune with your body and pay attention to any changes. If you notice new symptoms that are occurring almost daily for more than a few weeks this can be a sign of gynecologic cancer. Do not hesitate - you should seek medical attention promptly.

Nearly one in twenty women are affected by gynecologic cancer. With more than 100 different types of Human Papillomavirus HPV is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer and some vaginal and vulvar cancers - 80 percent of women will get an infection in their lifetime. Be proactive - get regular Pap tests to screen for the HPV virus. Pap tests are very effective in prevention and early detection of certain gynecologic cancers. If possible get vaccinated against HPV and continue to learn and be aware gynecological cancers so that together we can lower the number of women diagnosed each year.

Learn more about gynecologic cancers or see your gynecologist.

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