Gynecologic Cancer FAQs
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we feel that knowledge is your first line of defense against gynecologic cancer. We encourage you to learn more about it by reading through this list of common questions and answers.
What is gynecologic cancer?
Gynecologic cancer is a group of cancers that affect the tissue and organs of the female reproductive system. There are five main types of gynecologic cancers–each of which are named after the organ it originated in. They include:
- Ovarian cancer: a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries, which are the female reproductive glands located on each side of the uterus.
- Cervical cancer: cancer that begins in the cervix, the lower, narrow end of the uterus (the organ where a fetus grows) that leads to the vagina (birth canal).
- Endometrial (Uterine) cancer: a type of cancer that begins in the uterus, which is the hollow, pear-shaped pelvic organ in women where fetal development occurs.
- Vulvar cancer: is a type of cancer that occurs on the vulva, the external part of the female genitals, including the clitoris, vaginal lips, opening to the vagina, and surrounding skin and tissue.
- Vaginal cancer: cancer that begins in the vagina, which is the channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
Causes, risk factors, and symptoms vary among the different types of cancer, making each gynecologic cancer unique as you are. One commonality, however, is that when gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
What are the risk factors for developing gynecologic cancer?
Unfortunately, all women are at risk for developing gynecologic cancer— and that risk increases with age. However, this does not mean that you will develop one of these cancers. In general, different cancers have different risk factors. With that said, there are some common risk factors they share.
Risk factors that you may be able to have control over and are known to increase the chance of developing gynecologic cancer include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
- Being overweight or obese
- Poor nutrition
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen given during pregnancy, prior to the year 1970, to prevent miscarriage
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV/AIDS) infection
Some important things you may consider doing to reduce your risk or prevent gynecologic cancer may include:
- Eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly
- Limiting the number of sexual partners you have
- Using latex condoms during sex
- Quitting smoking
- Getting the HPV vaccine
Other risk factors that are completely out of your control include:
- Age. The older you are, the more your risk increases.
- Race. If you are a white or Hispanic woman you have a higher chance of a diagnosis.
- Family history. Not all gynecologic cancers have hereditary genes. Share your family history of cancer with your doctor and s/he should be able to tell you if genetics may be a risk factor.
It’s important to remember that many women with one or more risk factors never develop gynecologic cancer–and although there is no proven way to completely prevent these diseases, there may be steps you can take to lower your cancer risk.
Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your personal risk of developing any type of gynecologic cancer. If you have a family history that includes ovarian, breast, endometrial or colon cancers, genetic testing may be a good option for you.
We encourage you to talk with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers’ team of genetic counselors to learn more about testing and counseling available.
What are gynecologic cancer symptoms?
Understanding the symptoms of gynecologic cancer can help you be aware of early warning signs. Below is a broad list that covers some symptoms you should be aware of:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sex
- Frequent or urgent bowel changes
- Bloating and/or feeling of fullness
Again, this is just a broad list of common symptoms. The American Cancer Society has additional information regarding specific symptoms related to ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer, vulvar cancer, and vaginal cancer.
If you experience one or more of these symptoms for more than a month, we highly recommend that you schedule an appointment with your gynecologist. It’s also important to regularly visit your gynecologist for an exam, even if symptoms are not present.
What should I ask my doctor about gynecologic cancer testing?
Establishing a relationship with your doctor that includes open dialogue provides you with the opportunity to learn specific information regarding gynecologic cancers. Some questions you may consider asking include:
- What is a Pap test and what is its purpose? A Pap (Papanicolaou) smear, also called a Pap test, is a procedure to test for gynecological cancer in women. It involves collecting cells from your cervix so that they can be looked at under the microscope to find cancer and pre-cancer. The main purpose of screening with the Pap test is to detect abnormal cells that may develop into cancer if left untreated. The Pap test can also find non-cancerous conditions, such as infections and inflammation. It can also find cancer cells.
- When should I have my next Pap test? The frequency of your pap tests typically depend on your age and health history. Your doctor will be able to determine how often you should get screened.
- What do my Pap test results mean? Pap tests are not perfect. Results can come back as normal, abnormal, and inconclusive. They can even be false positive and false negative. Because of this, it’s important to remember that results other than normal does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. Your doctor will suggest more tests if they are needed.
- Is the HPV test right for me? HPV tests are not recommended for women under the age of 30. In most cases, HPV tests are conducted with a Pap test (co-testing) every 5 years. Talk with your doctor about co-testing if you are age 30-65.
- When can I stop getting a Pap test? Most women ages 21 to 65 should be screened regularly. Even if you are a postmenopausal woman who is younger than 65, regular pap tests are still needed. If you have had a hysterectomy and/or have no history of cervical cancer or abnormal Pap results, and/or older than 65 and have had 3 normal Pap tests in a row, you do not need Pap tests. Your doctor can help you determine when it’s the right time to stop getting screened.
- Are there any other gynecologic cancer tests that I need, based on my personal health and family cancer history? If so, what are they? Why do I need them? How do they work? In addition to Pap smears, women who are 18 years of age or sexually active should consider a pelvic exam. Women beginning menopause that are also considered high risk may want to consider an endometrial tissue sample. If you have a known family history of breast or gynecological cancers you may consider genetic testing to see if you carry a specific gene mutation that could increase your risk of cancer. Your doctor will be able to discuss additional options with you.
How are gynecologic cancers treated?
A treatment plan for gynecologic cancers is as unique as the woman for whom it is designed for and will depend upon a variety of factors, including the type and stage of cancer. The first step, however, almost always includes surgery. Other parts of the regimen may also include chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Because of the complexity of gynecologic cancers there are many pieces to the treatment puzzle. Dr. Donato, our Gynecologic Oncology Surgeon, will work closely with the medical oncologists and radiation oncologists at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers to ensure you receive the most complete and thorough care.
Are all gynecologic conditions cancerous?
Most non-cancerous medical conditions of the female reproductive system are not serious and in many cases will resolve themselves or can be treated therapeutically. In some instances surgical intervention is required.
Benign Gynecological Conditions
- Fibroids: These benign growths originate within the uterine muscle wall and are typically diagnosed during a pelvic exam. Treatment is dependent upon the size, location and patient symptoms.
- Ovarian cysts: Most ovarian cysts are benign and naturally go away on their own. Those that don’t resolve themselves can continue to grow causing symptoms that may include abdominal bloating, and complications like ovarian torsion which may require surgical intervention.
- Adhesions, Pelvic Masses or Pelvic Infection: These benign but complicated gynecological conditions may also necessitate surgical intervention depending upon their severity.
When seeking surgical options for the treatment of complex fibroids, ovarian cysts, a pelvic mass or other GYN non-cancerous conditions it is important to put your health in the hands of an experienced surgeon. Dr. Donato performs a high volume of cases, sees a wide range of case types and is both board-certified and fellowship-trained. Gynecological surgery is the only surgery he does and he is focused on options that facilitate optimal care, rapid recovery, and the patient’s fertility. Robotic-assisted surgery can be utilized for many of these conditions with less surgical trauma and quicker recovery.
- Fig 1: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gynecologic Cancers: What are the Symptoms? March 6, 2014; https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/gynecologic/basic_info/symptoms.htm. Accessed January 24, 2020.