How to Maintain Your Gynecologic Health

Facts About Gynecologic Cancer (PDF)

LEARN-LISTEN-ACT
Download the information on this page in brochure form.

Steady progress has been made to lessen the burden of gynecologic cancers through research. Of particular promise is better understanding of the risks, symptoms and prevention of the three most prevalent gynecologic cancers: cervical, ovarian and uterine.

During September, Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, and throughout the year, the Foundation for Women’s Cancer urges increased emphasis on helping women understand the steps that can be undertaken to reduce the risks for these cancers and receive the earliest possible diagnosis through symptom recognition.

We urge women to LEARN about the prevention and early warn signs of these cancers unique to women and LISTEN to your body. We all know what is normal for us. And finally, ACT to maintain your gynecologic health!

If you suspect or are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, seek care first from a gynecologic oncologist.

Cancer is a word used to define a collection of diseases that share one unique characteristic — the uncontrolled growth of cells that have the potential to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Gynecologic cancers grow from a woman’s reproductive organ(s) including the cervix, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, vagina and vulva.

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Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is a cancer that begins in the cervix, the part of the uterus or womb that opens to the vagina. It is the part of the uterus that dilates and opens fully to allow a baby to pass into the birth canal. The normal cervix has two main types of cells: squamous cells that protect the outside of the cervix, and glandular cells that are mostly inside the cervix which make the fluid and mucus commonly seen during ovulation. Cervical cancer is caused by abnormal changes in either of these cell types in the cervix and is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented by regular screening and appropriate vaccination.

Learn

  • Cervical cancer can be prevented.
  • Almost all cervical cancer is caused by a persistent infection with the Human Papillomavirus, or HPV.
  • Regular Pap tests and HPV testing when recommended are important in preventing cervical cancer.
  • Cervical cancer usually affects women between ages 30 and 55, but younger women also are at risk.

Listen to your body for these symptoms

  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Excessive discharge and abnormal bleeding between periods
  • NOTE: Most women will have no symptoms making vaccination and regular Pap test plus HPV test, when recommended, key to preventing cervical cancer.

To learn more about cervical cancer, read our brochure, Understanding Cervical Cancer: A Woman’s Guide

Act

  • Don’t smoke! Smoking weakens the immune system and a weakened immune system can lead to persistent HPV infection.
  • Get vaccinated, preferably in boys and girls ages 11 and 12
  • Get Pap tests and HPV tests when recommended at the intervals recommended by your healthcare provider; Take the Pledge to get an annual well woman’s exam.
  • If your test results say you have cervical pre-cancer or cancer, seek care from a gynecologic oncologist.

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Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer, the seventh most common cancer among women, usually starts on the surface of the ovary in cells that are called epithelial cells. About 85-90 percent of ovarian cancers are epithelial ovarian cancers. These cancer cells can implant themselves throughout the abdominal cavity. Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer (cancer that originates from the lining of the abdomen called the peritoneum) all have a similar type of growth and similar treatments are used. It is possible to have primary peritoneal cancer even though a woman’s ovaries have been removed.

There is growing scientific evidence to support the idea that ovarian cancer may actually begin in the fallopian tubes.

Learn

  • Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death among the gynecologic cancers and the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women.
  • Only 15% of all ovarian cancer cases are detected at the earliest, most curable stage.
  • One in 71 women will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime.

Learn your individual risk of ovarian cancer

  • The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, especially around the time of menopause
  • A family history of ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, primary peritoneal cancer or premenopausal breast cancer or a personal history of premenopausal breast cancer place women at heightened risk for ovarian cancer.
  • Infertility and not bearing children are risk factors; whereas, pregnancy and the use of birth control pills decrease risk.
  • NOTE: The Pap test only screens for cervical cancer and DOES NOT screen for ovarian cancer.

To learn more about your risk of ovarian cancer, read a brochure developed by the Foundation for Women’s Cancer in partnership with Project Hope, Understanding Your Risk of Ovarian Cancer: A Woman’s Guide.

Listen to your body for these symptoms

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms — urgency or frequency
  • NOTE: Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to early detection.

Act

  • Unfortunately, there is no general screening test for ovarian cancer.
  • NOTE: Therefore, women need to understand their risk and listen to their bodies for symptoms.
  • If you have symptoms of ovarian cancer that are frequent, persistent and new to you, ask your doctor to consider ovarian cancer as a possible cause. Most likely you do not have ovarian cancer. But if ovarian cancer is suspected or diagnosed, seek care first from a gynecologic oncologist.

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Uterine Cancer

Most uterine cancers begin in the lining of the uterus (endometrium). The endometrium is the tissue shed each month with the menstrual cycle. In the most common type of uterine cancer, called endometrial adenocarcinoma, cells in the endometrial lining grow out of control, may invade the muscular wall of the uterus and sometimes spread outside of the uterus (ovaries, lymph nodes, abdominal cavity).

Uterine sarcomas represent a type of uterine cancer in which malignant cells form in the muscle of the uterus (leiomyosarcoma) or in the network of support cells in the uterine lining (endometrial stromal sarcomas and carcinosarcomas). Accounting for fewer than five percent of all uterine cancers, uterine sarcomas are much less common than endometrial cancer, but have a much more aggressive clinical behavior. These cancers can spread quickly to distant sites.

Learn

  • The most common uterine cancer is endometrial cancer, and it is the most common gynecologic cancer.
  • Uterine cancer usually occurs around the time of menopause, but younger women also are at risk.
  • There is no screening test for endometrial cancer.
  • NOTE: The Pap test only screens for cervical cancer and DOES NOT screen for uterine cancer.

Risk factors for endometrial cancer include:

  • Taking estrogen alone without progesterone
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Use of tamoxifen
  • Late menopause (after age 52)
  • Never becoming pregnant
  • A family history of endometrial or colon cancer

To learn more about uterine cancer, read our brochure, Understanding Endometrial Cancer: A Woman’s Guide.

Listen to your body for these symptoms

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding; younger women should note irregular or heavy vaginal bleeding
  • Bleeding after menopause. Even brown spotting or a single spot of blood from the vagina is abnormal after menopause and should lead to a prompt gynecologic evaluation.

Act

  • If you experience these symptoms, you should have a biopsy of the endometrium to check for uterine cancer.

You can reduce your risk of uterine cancer by taking these steps:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep your blood pressure and blood sugar under control
  • Manage your weight
  • If you have an endometrial biopsy that shows endometrial cancer, seek care from a gynecologic oncologist.

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Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer originates in the vagina, usually in the lining (squamous epithelium). It usually is diagnosed in older women.

Learn

  • Vaginal cancer usually affects older women and may not cause symptoms in its earliest stage.

Risk factors for vaginal cancer include:

  • Infection with HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
  • Smoking
  • Age (60 years and older)
  • A mother who took DES (a hormone medicine used many years ago during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage)

Many precancerous conditions and early vaginal cancers can be detected through routine pelvic exams and Pap tests.
Because many vaginal cancers are associated with HPV types 16 and 18, vaginal cancer now can be prevented by vaccinations advocated for the prevention of cervical cancer.

Listen to your body for these symptoms

  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • Problems with urination or bowel movements

Act

  • Don’t smoke! Smoking weakens the immune system and a weakened immune system can lead to persistent HPV infection.
  • Get vaccinated before you become sexually active.
  • Undergo regular well women exams including a pelvic examination.
  • Get Pap test and HPV tests when recommended at the intervals recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • If you suspect or have been diagnosed with vaginal pre-cancer or cancer, seek care from a gynecologic oncologist.

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Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer is caused by the growth and spread of abnormal cells within the skin of the labia and perineum.

Learn

  • Infection with HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is a common cause of vulvar cancer in young women.
  • Vulvar cancer is typically a disease of older women. Women in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s should not blame perineal itching only to yeast and other infections.
  • Vulvar cancer is very uncommon but usually is a very curable cancer.

Listen to your body for these symptoms

  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Bleeding
  • Pain
  • New lump or ulcer in the genital area

Act

  • See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if you experience these symptoms.
  • If you suspect or have been diagnosed with vulvar cancer, seek care from a gynecologic oncologist.

Download the information on this page in brochure form.

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We hope that this information is of value to you as you strive to live a balanced life and maintain your gynecologic health. The Foundation for Women’s Cancer is dedicated to expanding public awareness, education, research and training to improve the prevention, early detection and optimal treatment of gynecologic cancers.

If you have found this information to be useful, we would appreciate your considering making a donation so that we can help more women maintain their gynecologic health.

Spotlight

This special section in Self Magazine features a GYN surgeon and 34-year-old (at the time of diagnosis) patient.

Awareness

This year’s National Race to End Women’s Cancer aims to spread the word that all women should Love Your Ladyparts! Check out site’s new features and join the MOVEMENT.

Research

The Foundation’s research award winners will be notified in January. Thank you to all who sent in their applications.

Education

The next Gynecologic Cancer Survivors Course will be February 7-8 in Anchorage, Alaska. For more information on educational events and courses, click here.