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Gynecologic Cancers

Follow this primer to learn about the different types of gynecologic cancers, how each one is detected and treated, and how you can reduce your risk of developing gynecologic cancer in the first place.

Gynecologic cancer is one that develops anywhere along the female reproductive tract. In the United States, around 94,000 women are diagnosed with gynecological cancer each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Luckily, there is a lot you can do to prevent gynecologic cancers from developing in the first place.

The type of medical doctor who specializes in cancer is called an “oncologist,” however many women’s health doctors (also known as OB/GYNs) are also very skilled at detecting and treating gynecologic cancers.

Read on to learn more about gynecologic cancers, how they may affect you or your loved ones, and how our specialists at Lompoc Valley Medical Center can help.

What Are the Different Types of Gynecologic Cancers?

Any kind of cancer comes from the unregulated growth of your body’s cells. When cells start to grow and multiply out of control, they can spread to other areas and interfere with and steal resources from normal cells.

When it comes to gynecologic cancers, there are five main types. Each type is named for the location in which the cancer cells originate:

  • Uterine (also known as “endometrial”) cancers originate in the uterus
  • Ovarian cancers originate in the ovaries
  • Cervical cancers originate in the cervix
  • Vaginal cancers originate in the vagina
  • Vulvar cancers originate in the vulva

Some gynecologic cancers are related to each other, and many have similar risk factors and symptoms. Of the five main types of gynecologic cancers, uterine cancer is the most common, with about 57,000 new cases and 11,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Other Gynecologic Cancers

Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers

These types of cancer are rare, with around 6,200 cases of vaginal cancer and 6,100 cases of vulvar cancer anticipated in women in the U.S. this year. Risk factors include increasing age, a history of exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a history of infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a history of cervical cancer, immunosuppression, smoking, alcohol intake, or chronic symptoms of itching or burning in the area. Symptoms typically include abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pain, irritation in the vaginal or vulvar area, palpable masses or lumps, skin changes (especially open sores that won’t go away), or painful intercourse. Treatments include laser surgery, topical therapy, radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Gestational Trophoblastic Disease

This rare type of cancer develops from a pregnancy in which an egg cell is fertilized but there is something atypical about fertilization. Gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD) has many different types, the most common of which is called a “molar pregnancy.” Women at the extremes of the childbearing age range–-younger than 20 years or older than 35 years--are more likely to develop gestational trophoblastic disease. If you have had this type of pregnancy in the past, you are more likely to have one in the future. Other slight risk factors include having a specific blood type, a history of birth control pill use, and a positive family history of GTD.

The gestational trophoblastic disease will generally be detected during normal pregnancy care with ultrasounds and blood work. The pregnancy may have abnormal signs, with associated bleeding, pain, and faster-than-usual uterine enlargement. These types of tumors can usually be removed by surgery.

How to Prevent Gynecologic Cancer

Luckily, there are many general lifestyle measures you can undertake to reduce your risk of ever getting gynecologic cancer (or any cancer at all). These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats
  • Avoiding smoking and reducing alcohol intake
  • Maintaining a healthy weight through exercise and diet

When it comes to gynecologic cancers, specifically, you can reduce your risk in the following ways:

  • Getting vaccinated against HPV (this is recommended by the American Cancer Society for both boys and girls ages 9 to 12).
  • Avoid contracting an HPV infection by wearing condoms during sexual interactions and reducing your number of sexual partners.
  • Staying up to date with cervical screening exams.
  • If you are taking hormonal estrogen, using a formulation that also has progesterone as a component.
  • Breastfeeding – this can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Using birth control pills – can reduce your risk of endometrial or ovarian cancer. However, you should make any risk reduction decision carefully, with your medical provider, as birth control pills can increase your risk of developing other forms of cancer, such as breast and cervical cancer.

Although cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that has an associated screening test, staying up to date with your routine medical care, and getting routine pelvic examinations, can help detect all forms of gynecologic cancer.

Make sure to keep track of any gynecologic symptoms you may be having, and discuss these with your medical provider. If you have a history of gynecologic cancers in your family, or you are otherwise at a higher risk, your medical provider may proactively evaluate you for gynecologic cancers at specific intervals.

When it comes to preventing gynecologic cancer, a great place to start is scheduling a routine appointment with a healthcare provider who specializes in family medicine, internal medicine, or women’s health. Check out our services page to learn more about the resources available at Lompoc Valley Medical Center.