By Ruchi Garg, MD, National Program Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America
Gynecologic cancer is a broad term that refers to any cancer that attacks female reproductive organs. It is indiscriminate in that women of all ages, races and ethnicities may be afflicted and it can be difficult to detect, especially in the early stages.
While there are many forms of gynecologic cancer, there are five types that represent the vast majority of cases: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. Other types we encounter include peritoneal, fallopian tube and gestational trophoblastic disease. According to the American Cancer Society, almost 117,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed with some form of gynecologic cancer this year alone, with more than 66,500 of those cases being uterine cancer.
Caucasian women have the highest incidence of uterine, ovarian and vulvar cancer. Black women tend to present with more aggressive types of uterine cancers, and unfortunately, are also diagnosed with the most cases of vaginal cancer per capita. Hispanic/Latina women are stricken with cervical cancer at a higher rate than any other groups. The American Cancer Society statistics further reveal that women under age 50 are most likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer while those older have a higher probability of developing uterine cancer.
Symptoms of gynecologic cancers are not the same for all women and some may experience no symptoms at all in the initial stages. Family history may also be an indicator. A clear takeaway: pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you, so you can recognize the warning signs or symptoms of gynecologic cancer.
Any vaginal bleeding that is unusual for pre- or post-menopausal women should be brought to the attention of a physician as soon as possible. It could be an anomaly, but it could be a sign of cancer and the only way to know for certain is to get it checked out. If it turns out to be cancer, the sooner you and your doctor know, the greater the likelihood of a successful treatment regimen.
Abnormal bleeding is the most common sign of gynecologic cancer, but not the only one. Other symptoms include:
- Pelvic pain or pressure
- Abdominal or back pain
- Bloating and early satiety (feeling full quickly)
- Changes in bathroom habits that are persistent (increased urination, constipation, diarrhea, thin or ribbon-like stool)
- Itching or burning of the vulva
- Changes in vulva color or skin (rash, sores, warts, ulcers)
If you experience these signs or other symptoms that are persistent for a few weeks, don’t delay, go see a doctor because gynecologic cancer can affect ten different women in ten distinctly different ways.
The good news is effective screening methods for detecting cervical and uterine cancers in the early stages exist. Staying faithful to a regular checkup schedule with your doctor(s) is vitally important and can help assure gynecologic cancers are identified sooner.
Take-home message: Any woman with a known or suspected gynecologic cancer should be evaluated and treated by a gynecologic oncologist from the start, if possible. In fact, research suggests that women with gynecologic cancers who are treated by a gynecologic oncologist have better outcomes and chances for survival than those who are not.
Gynecologic cancers are complex, and treatment often involves multiple approaches, such as surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. A gynecologic oncologist is that one doctor who may be able to manage all or most of your treatment, which often involves multiple approaches, such as surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.