A woman’s reproductive system is centered on the uterus (including the cervix), which is also known as the womb. The ovaries attach to the top of the uterus, and the vagina connects the uterus to the outside of the body. The external genitals are called the vulva. Gynecologic cancers result from the rapid growth and spread of abnormal cells in one of these organs.
Compared to other types of cancer (like breast or colon cancer), gynecologic cancers are uncommon.That said, all women are at risk for developing gynecologic cancers, and the risk increases with age. It’s important to know the warning signs, as treatments are most effective when the cancer is found at an early stage.
TYPES of Gynecologic Cancers, and Who’s at risk
There are five major types:
- Cervical cancer
- Uterine (endometrial) cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
SYMPTOMS of Gynaecologic Cancers
Symptoms vary depending on the organ that’s involved and should always be evaluated by your doctor.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding and discharge can occur with any gynecologic cancer. Sometimes, pelvic pain can occur with uterine and ovarian cancer. Similarly, bloating, constipation, and an increased need to urinate can occur with ovarian cancer but not all patients will have those symptoms.
Vulvar cancer causes itching and soreness, along with a visible lesion. An area of skin on the vulva may have a different color than the surrounding skin.
So far, only cervical cancer has routine screening tests (the Pap smear and HPV testing). Because symptoms of early-stage gynecologic cancers are often vague and can also be caused by other, less serious conditions, doctors encourage women to have regular gynecologic exams to check for signs of disease.
DIAGNOSIS of Gynecologic Cancers
To diagnose gynecologic cancers, doctors review the patient’s medical history, perform a physical exam, and run one or more diagnostic tests.
- Medical history. The doctor will assess the patient’s medical record, ask about symptoms, and whether the patient has any risk factors for gynecologic cancers.
- Physical exam. During the physical exam, the doctor will look for signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers and determine the patient’s overall health. The exam may involve a pelvic exam.
Various diagnostic tests are used to diagnose gynecologic cancers. These may include:
- Blood tests. Bloodwork is used to measure the level of tumor markers and other components of the blood that may be indicative of cancer.
- Pap test. In this test, a doctor removes a sample of cells from the cervix for laboratory analysis. A pathologist looks at the cells under a microscope to determine if cancer is present. This test is used in the diagnosis of cervical cancer.
- Imaging tests. These tests produce images of the internal tissues of the pelvis and abdomen, and allow doctors to visually detect tumors and other abnormalities. Commonly used imaging tests in the diagnosis of gynecologic cancers include ultrasounds, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, and computed tomography (CT) scans.
If a gynecologic cancer is diagnosed, other imaging tests such as a positron emission tomography (PET) scan may be used to determine if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Biopsy is necessary to confirm the diagnosis of cancer. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is removed for laboratory analysis. For gynecologic cancers, biopsies may be performed using an image-guided needle during a minimally invasive procedure, via open surgery, or using other specialized instruments. Once the tissue sample is collected, a pathologist examines it under a microscope to check for the presence of cancer cells.
TREATMENT of Gynecologic Cancers
Treatment depends on many factors, including whether the cancer has spread, and whether the patient is young enough to have children.
For more advanced disease, surgery is usually the best option. Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) is common among patients with cervical, uterine and ovarian cancers. Doctors may also suggest radiation therapy or chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from spreading further.
About the Expert
Dr. Zeenie Sarda Girn has extensive experience in Obstetrics and Gynaeocology over last 23 years in India and England. She has managed several normal and high risk pregnancies. She has vast surgical experience in performing hysterectomies, fibroids surgeries, surgery for gynae cancers both laparoscopic and open. Also she is a specialist in managing urinary incontinence in women and prolapse of Uterus.