Symptoms associated with gynecologic cancers can be vague or overlooked, which may lead to later diagnosis. With knowledge about typical symptoms, available prevention, and screening tools and improved awareness of family history and genetics, patients can be armed with information that can improve detection and even help prevent some gynecologic cancers.
University of Chicago Medicine gynecologic oncologist Katherine Kurnit, M.D., MPH, explains possible signs and symptoms, ways to reduce risk and best forms of prevention.
What is gynecologic cancer?
There are actually quite a few types of cancer that affect the tissue and organs of the female reproductive system (gynecologic tract). The main types of gynecologic cancer — each named after the organ it originated in — include ovarian, fallopian tube, cervical, endometrial (also known as uterine), vulvar and vaginal.
The vulva is the skin on the outside of the genital area. Vaginal cancer arises in the walls of the vagina. The cervix is the portion of the womb (uterus) that extends into the vagina and dilates during the delivery of a baby. The ovaries produce eggs and the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, while the fallopian tubes accept the eggs from the ovary to implant in the uterus.
How common are these cancers?
Endometrial or uterine cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer and is diagnosed in about 66,000 women a year. Ovarian and cervical cancers affect 20,000 and 13,000 women, respectively, a year. Vulvar and vaginal cancers are very rare; in the U.S., close to 6,000 women are diagnosed with vulvar cancer and approximately 3,000 for vaginal. Gynecologic cancer numbers are not as high as for other cancers like breast or lung, but they are very important because we typically don’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about them.
What are symptoms to look for?
Abdominal bloating, feeling too full after eating, swelling of the abdomen, persistent change in bowel habits and abdominal pain can be symptoms of ovarian cancer. Bleeding after intercourse, bleeding between periods, post-menopausal bleeding (bleeding after menopause), back or flank pain, and pelvic pain are symptoms associated with cervical cancer. Post-menopausal bleeding also is a common symptom of endometrial cancer. Unfortunately, the symptoms of vulvar cancer, itching and discoloration, can be attributed to skin conditions and some people will try to treat the problem themselves with over-the-counter remedies.
Occasionally, doctors might not recognize the condition at first, especially if it is rare. If the condition does not get better and is persistent — ongoing discharge, abnormal bleeding or skin changes — then it is time to speak to a gynecologist.
What are the risk factors and can these cancers be prevented?
Anyone with female reproductive anatomy is at risk for developing a gynecologic cancer. Although different cancers have different risk factors, there are important ways to reduce your risk, such as getting regular Pap smear screenings, getting the HPV vaccine to dramatically reduce the rate of HPV infection, maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, talking to your doctor about family history, quitting smoking and contacting your doctor if any symptoms arise.
What is UChicago Medicine’s approach to diagnosing and treating gynecologic cancers?
Our multidisciplinary team includes expert gynecologic oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists and reconstructive surgeons. The care team also extends to our nationally recognized cancer risk genetics program, supportive oncology program and the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) for women and girls with cancer.
Cancer care doesn’t begin and end with medical treatment alone, and UChicago Medicine provides patients with the resources and support they need to optimize their current and future health care needs.