Knowing the Signs and Symptoms of Gynecologic Cancers

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At AdventHealth, our OB/GYN and gynecologic oncology physicians specialize in the screening and treatment of gynecologic cancers and are skilled in advanced minimally invasive surgery, as well as more advanced procedures for progressive diseases.

As with other types of cancers, early detection is the key to beating the disease. “The incidence of cervical cancer in the United States has decreased more than 50% in the past 30 years because of widespread screening,” says AdventHealth OB/GYN Dr. Cecille Tapia-Santiago, showing that in addition to knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for, annual screenings can help save your life.

Types of Gynecologic Cancer

A cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs is considered gynecologic cancer, of which there are five main types:

Cervical Cancer

This type of cancer begins in a woman’s cervix — the lower, narrow end of the uterus.

Ovarian Cancer

On each side of the uterus there are ovaries, and this type of cancer begins there.

Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer begins in the uterus, and the uterus is the organ in a woman’s pelvis where a baby grows if she becomes pregnant.

Vaginal Cancer

The hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body is called the vagina, where vaginal cancer begins.

Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer initiates in the vulva, which is the outer part of a woman’s genital organs.

Signs and Symptoms

While many signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer can overlap, it’s important to know the warning signs that may require medical attention. If you have any of the symptoms listed below for more than two weeks or if you have abnormal bleeding, please see your OB/GYN immediately.

Symptoms Cervical Cancer Ovarian Cancer Uterine Cancer Vaginal Cancer Vulvar Cancer
Abnormal vaginal discharge x x x x
Pelvic pain or pressure x x x
Abdominal or back pain x
Bloating x
Changes in bathroom habits x x
Itching or burning x
Changes in vulvar color or skin x
Abnormal vaginal bleeding x x x x

Risk Factors and Screening Options

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no way to know for sure if you will get a gynecologic cancer. Dr. Tapia-Santiago explains that the risk factors involved for gynecological cancers depend somewhat on the cancer type. “Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a the most significant risk factor and cause of cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers,” she explains. “Family history of gynecologic, colon, and breast cancers are important risk factors for uterine and ovarian cancer,” Dr. Tapia-Santiago adds. About 15% of ovarian cancer diagnoses are found to be hereditary, meaning there is a family history. So, if there are links to ovarian cancer in your family, it’s especially important to regularly follow up with your care provider and make them aware of the family link.

“Some lifestyle factors are considered risk factors, specifically obesity and smoking. Diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of medication are considered risk factors as well,” says Dr. Tapia-Santiago. Increasing age is a risk factor for all gynecological cancers, however younger women are at risk as well, particularly for the HPV related cancers

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that about 79 million Americans currently have, but there is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer later on. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens (aged 11 to 12) and it prevents new HPV infections, as well as protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer.

Annual Wellness Visit

Women are also encouraged to get regular Pap tests at their OB/GYN office. Cervical cancer can be detected by a Pap test and help your care provider find any precancerous cells or cancerous cells, so you know if any next steps for treatment are necessary.

In addition to regular Pap tests, women should also get a pelvic exam. While the Pap test screens for cervical cancer, a full pelvic exam can give you and your physician insight on any other potential malignancies, like ovarian cancer or other cancers and conditions. Whatever your diagnosis may be, the key to successful outcomes is early detection.

We’re Ready When You’re Ready

Our physicians are here and ready to help you take proactive steps for cancer prevention and treatment. And it’s our hope that you have peace of mind knowing we’ve taken measures to help keep you safe when you visit us.

If you need help finding a doctor, use our convenient online physician finder. To learn more about cancer screening, detection and treatment, click here.

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