When it comes to the subject of cancer in women, we oftentimes talk about breast cancer prevention and treatment and overlook the ‘down there’ cancers, such as cervical, vulvar and the deadly serious ovarian cancer, that aren’t as easy to talk about. However, understanding personal risk for gynecologic cancers, as well as talking to a doctor at the first signs, is important for every woman’s health – and it starts with knowing these twelve facts!
1. The five most common gynecologic cancers are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.
Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that originates in a woman’s reproductive organs. The CDC sites the five most common forms as follows:
- Cervical cancer: starts in the cervix, located in the lower, narrow end of the uterus, or womb.
- Ovarian cancer: starts in the ovaries, located on either side of uterus.
- Uterine, or endometrial, cancer: starts in the uterus, the female organ where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
- Vaginal cancer: starts in the vagina, located between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
- Vulvar cancer: starts in the vulva, located on the outer part of the female genital organs.
2. More than 91,000 gynecologic cancer diagnoses are made each year in the U.S.
According to the American Cancer Society, the estimated number of gynecologic cancers diagnosed breaks down as follows:
- About 12,000 for cervical cancer each year
- About 22,000 for ovarian cancer each year
- About 52,000 for uterine cancer each year
- About 3,000 for vaginal cancer each year
- About 5,000 for vulvar cancer each year
3. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancer.
Though risk increases with age, all women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, which is why it is important for every woman, no matter their age or body type, to know her personal risk and the symptoms.
4. Each gynecologic cancer has a unique set of symptoms.
Not all women with gynecologic cancer have the same symptoms and sometimes symptoms can be hard to recognize. If you demonstrate any of the most common gynecologic cancer symptoms for two weeks or longer, schedule an appointment to see your doctor immediately:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Abdominal or back pain
- Bloating in bathroom habits
- Itching or burning of the vulva
- Changes in vulva color or skin, such as rash, sores or warts
5. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections that do not go away increase risk of several types of gynecologic cancers.
Almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the vagina and vulva are cause by a virus called human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV. Fortunately, while many people will have HPV infection at some point in their lifetime, few women will get gynecologic cancer linked to the virus, according to the National Cancer Institute.
6. The HPV is recommended for 11- to 12-year-old girls.
For the HPV vaccine to be effective, it should be given prior to HPV exposure, which is why it’s recommended at such a young age. The CDC recommends all girls who are age 11 or 12 should get the three dose series of HPV vaccine. Teen girls and young women through age 26 who did not get the vaccine when they were younger should get it now.
7. Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that has a recommended screening test – the Pap Smear test.
Cervical cancer can often be found early, and sometimes prevented, by having regular Pap Smear tests. If detected early, the American Cancer Society sites cervical cancer as one of the most successfully treatable cancers.
8. Women should start getting regular Pap Smears at age 21.
The American Cancer Society recommends guidelines for early detection of cervical cancer. Starting at age 21, all women should start and continue getting a Pap Smear as directed by a doctor. If your Pap Smear results are normal, your doctor may recommend screening every three years. If you are 30 or older, and results are normal, your doctor may tell you to wait up to five years for your next screening.
9. There are things you can do to reduce your risk.
Though you may not be able to completely prevent gynecologic cancer, there are certain lifestyle choices you can make in order to reduce your risk. The CDC offers these recommendations:
- Maintain a healthy diet and daily exercise routine.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices, like quitting smoking and practicing safe sex.
- Schedule annual checkups and get the HPV vaccine, regular Pap Smears and the HPV test, if recommended by a doctor.
- Share your family health history with your doctor.
10. Gynecologic cancer is treated in several ways.
Depending on the type and stage of cancer, gynecologic cancers are treated by using one or more of the following therapies: surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
11. Gynecologic cancer is found early, treatment is most effective.
Like all cancer, the success of treatment is largely dependent on the stage of gynecologic cancer and whether or not it’s spread to other parts of the body. Regular screening and self-examination can help your doctor diagnose early, when treatment is most effective.
12. September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month!
Gynecologic cancer education saves lives! In support of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month this September, share this infographic with at least one woman in your life, and talk to your doctor about your testing and screening options today.
Visit the Wendt Regional Cancer Center webpage for more information on personalized gynecologic cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.