Cancers of the reproductive organs or gynecologic cancers are one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in women worldwide. Per annum, lakhs of women are diagnosed with gynecological cancers and hence, it is important to be aware of these cancers.

When gynecologic cancers are diagnosed early, treatment will be more effective and is often curable. To be diagnosed early, one should know the signs, symptoms and risk factors of gynecologic cancers.

This article provides the necessary information that will help each woman to understand each type of cancer, to reduce their risks and to seek medical attention if certain symptoms arise.

Gynecologic Cancer – Overview

Gynecologic cancers occur when certain cells in the female reproductive organs divide at an uncontrollable rate and form a mass called tumor. These tumors can spread locally into the surrounding tissues or spread to other organs through the lymphatic system or blood stream.

Based on the origin, gynecologic cancers are mainly of five types: ovarian, endometrial/uterine, cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the eighth common cancer diagnosed among women worldwide. Ovarian cancer is affects either one or both ovaries. It is caused by abnormal growth and division of cells in the ovary. Previously, ovarian cancers were believed to originate only in the ovaries, but studies show that ovarian cancer can also begin in the part of the fallopian tube near to an ovary.

Signs and symptoms:

Ovarian cancer does not always cause symptoms in the initial stages, or if it does, they might seem vague or similar to other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary urgency

Advanced stage symptoms include:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Lower back pain
  • Abdominal swelling/ ascites

Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the uterine tissue. Endometrial cancer usually affects postmenopausal women and is the sixth most common cancer in women worldwide. It is uncommon in women under age 45.

There are two main types of uterine cancer: endometrial cancer, which occurs in the lining of the uterus, and uterine sarcomas which occur in the muscles of the uterus or other tissues that support the uterus.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of uterine cancer may include:

  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal bleeding or abnormal watery discharge not related to periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Difficult or painful urination

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer occurs when the normal cells of the cervix undergo some changes and begin to grow out of control. These abnormal changes in the cells will initially lead to a pre-cancerous stage. In some cases, pre-cancers of the cervix will turn into invasive cancers that can spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal. It is mainly caused by certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) which are usually transmitted between people through skin-to-skin contact.

Signs and Symptoms

Cervical cancer is usually asymptomatic in the early stage. However, as the cancer begins to grow you may experience:

  • Unusual bleeding, between periods, after sex, or after menopause
  • An unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Pain in the pelvic region
  • Pain during sexual intercourse and urination

Advanced stage symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the legs
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Blood in the urine

Vulvar Cancer:

It is a rare cancer that occurs on the outer surface of a woman’s genitals – vulva, the area of skin that surrounds vagina and urethra. Though it can affect women at any age, vulvar cancer is more common in post-menopausal women. Vulvar cancer is a highly curable type of gynecological cancer.

Signs and Symptoms

Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Itching, burning or pain at a point in the vulva
  • Red, pink, or white warts that change its shape
  • Burning sensation while urinating
  • Bleeding not associated with menstruation

Vaginal cancer

It is a rare malignant cancer that occurs in the vagina. It tends to mostly affect older women above age 60 and for those women with HPV infection.

Signs and Symptoms

Vaginal cancer often does not cause early signs or symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain or burning sensation while urinating
  • Constipation

How are Gynecologic Cancers Treated?

Most of these cancers are diagnosed by regular pelvic examinations and other laboratory tests. If cancer is suspected, a biopsy is performed to confirm or rule out cancer diagnosis.

Treatment modalities for gynecologic cancers aim to remove the tumor as much as possible and to prevent the recurrence. Based on the size and type of the tumor, its growth rate, location, and the general health of the patient, the treatment team will recommend the following treatment options:

Surgery: Gynecologic cancers are primarily treated with surgery. It involves complete or partial removal of cancerous tissues surrounding the reproductive organs.

Chemotherapy: It involves the usage of powerful drugs to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells in the body. These drugs will interfere with the process of cell division and promote cancer cell death.

Radiation: It uses high energy radiations like X-rays to destroy the cancer cells. Depending on the stage, radiation therapy can be given alone or combined with chemotherapy or might be given after surgery.

How to Reduce your Risk of Developing Gynecologic Cancers?

Even though, there is no proven way to completely prevent these cancers. Managing some risk factors may help in lowering the risk of the disease.

Follow these steps to reduce the risk:

  • Follow a healthy lifestyle and eating habits
  • Perform routine screening and self-examination if you have a family history of cancer
  • Practice safe sex
  • Consider getting-HPV vaccination
  • Quit smoking
  • Contact your doctor if you notice any abnormal symptom

Due to the nature of the disease, each woman diagnosed with gynecologic cancers will have a different profile and hence it is difficult to provide a general prognosis. The outlook generally depends on the type of the cancer and the stage of the cancer during diagnosis and individual factors, such as age, overall health, and how your body responds to the treatment.

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