Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts. Gynecologic cancers begin in different places within a woman’s pelvis, which is the area below the stomach and in between the hip bones.
- Cervical Cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. (The uterus is also called the womb.)
- Ovarian Cancer begins in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus.
- Uterine Cancer begins in the uterus, the pear-shaped organ in a woman’s pelvis where the baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
- Vaginal Cancer begins in the vagina, which is the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
- Vulvar Cancer begins in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs.
Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs and symptoms, different risk factors (things that may increase your chance of getting a disease), and different prevention strategies. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and risk increases with age. When gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
What Are the Symptoms?
There is no way to know for sure if you will get a gynecologic cancer. That’s why it is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you, so you can recognize the warning signs or symptoms of gynecologic cancer.
If you have vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you, talk to a doctor right away. You should also see a doctor if you have any other warning signs that last for two weeks or longer and are not normal for you. Symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see a doctor.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?
Some gynecologic cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection. Vaccines protect against the HPV types that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. It is recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls and boys. (Note: The vaccine can be given beginning at age 9.) It also can be given to females or males who are 13–26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. Ideally, girls and boys should get three doses of this vaccine before their first sexual contact. If you or someone you care about is in this age range, talk with a doctor about it.
Screening is when a test is used to look for a disease before there are any symptoms. Cancer screening tests are effective when they can find disease early, which can lead to more effective treatment. Of all the gynecologic cancers, only cervical cancer has a screening test—the Pap test—that can find this cancer early, when treatment works best. The Pap test also helps prevent cervical cancer by finding precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. In addition to the Pap test, which is the main screening test for cervical cancer, a test called the HPV test looks for HPV infection. It can be used along with the Pap test for screening women aged 30 years and older.
Since there is no simple and reliable way to screen for any gynecologic cancers except cervical cancer, it is especially important to recognize warning signs and learn if there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Talk with your doctor if you believe that you are at increased risk for gynecologic cancer. Ask what you might do to lower your risk and whether there are tests that you should have.