Gynecologic Cancers and Screening Options

November 06, 2014

According to the American Cancer Society,nearly 80,000 women annually are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer. Unfortunately, signs and symptoms of some of these cancers can be vague and women are often unaware there may be cause for concern. That’s why it’s so important for women to see their gynecologist regularly, pay attention to their bodies, and talk to their doctor if they notice any unexplained changes.

Common Gynecologic Cancers

Gynecologic cancer is cancer of the female reproductive system, which includes cervical cancer, endometrial/uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer and peritoneal cancer. The three most prevalent gynecologic cancers are uterine, cervical and ovarian.

“The most common ones we see at New Hanover Regional Medical Center are cancer of the uterus, followed by cancer of the ovaries, and then cervical cancer,” said Dr. Lucybeth Nieves of New Hanover Gynecologic Oncology -NHRMC Physician Group.

Gynecologic Cancer Symptoms

Dr. Nieves stresses that while symptoms of some gynecologic cancers are obvious, others are harder to detect and may be missed. “I think the most important thing women can do is be aware of their bodies, so if they notice they start having symptoms like bleeding or bloating that doesn’t go away in two weeks, they should see their doctor,” she said.

Cervical cancer symptoms can include vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding and pain. Ovarian cancer symptoms include pelvic or abdominal pain, urinary symptoms such as urgency or frequency, and extreme and sudden onset bloating. The most common warning sign of uterine cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Other uterine cancer symptoms include pain in the lower abdomen or pelvic area and pain or difficulty when emptying the bladder.

Some of these symptoms may be caused by health problems other than cancer. Women experiencing these symptoms should speak with their doctor so that any problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Screening Options

Cervical cancer screening, which includes the Pap test and HPV (human papillovirus) testing,can detect cancer or abnormalities that may lead to cancer of the cervix, such as precancers and cell changes on the cervix. Since nearly all cervical cancers are caused by the HPV virus, the HPV vaccine can lead to the greatest prevention of cervical cancer.

“Some gynecologic cancers are very treatable with early detection, and cervical cancer is even preventable with regular screenings,” said Dr. Nieves. “Women should have regular Pap smears, and we really encourage women younger than 26 years old to get the HPV vaccine. Doing these things can help prevent cervical cancer.”

Current National Cancer Institute guidelinesrecommend that women should have a Pap test every three years beginning at age 21 and continue screening until age 65. Women with certain risk factors may need to have more frequent screening. While there is no standard or routine screening test for uterine cancer, it usually produces noticeable symptoms that cause concern, according to Dr. Nieves. “With uterine cancer, patients tend to have bleeding, which makes them go to the doctor. This means that most of the time uterine cancer is found early when it’s treatable. When caught at this early stage there is a good chance of recovery.”

Unfortunately there is no simple and reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer. “Ovarian cancer is harder to detect because the symptoms can be very vague, so by the time most patients present, they have advanced stage,” said Dr. Nieves. “So the most important thing for women to do is pay attention to their bodies and be aware of any changes, and if they’re having symptoms or feeling problems, schedule time to discuss this with their doctor.