Gynecologic cancer starts in a woman’s reproductive organs. There are five main types of the cancer: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. About 89,000 women are diagnosed with gynecologic cancer every year in the United States, with uterine and ovarian cancers being the most common.
Types of gynecologic cancer
Cervical: Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented through screenings, also known as Pap tests.
Ovarian: Ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus. Ovarian cancer also can develop in the fallopian tubes or peritoneum, lining that covers organs in the abdomen.
Uterine: Uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer, originates in the uterus. A woman's risk for uterine cancer increases with age. It is most commonly found in women during or after menopause.
Vaginal: Vaginal cancer begins in the vagina, sometimes called the birth canal. Treatment for vaginal cancer is most effective when the cancer is found in its earliest stages.
Vulvar: Vulvar cancer occurs on the outer parts of a woman's genitals. This area is known as the vulva. Vulvar cancer is rare, but still affects about 4,900 women every year in the United States.
All gynecologic cancers have their own risk factors, though the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes almost all cervical and some vaginal cancers.
HPV is transmitted sexually, which means that anyone who has ever had sex is at risk for getting the virus. In fact, HPV is so common that nearly all men and women have HPV at some point during their life. Most of the time a person's body clears up the infection on its own and people never experience any symptoms—or even know they have HPV. When the virus does not go away on its own, it can cause gynecologic cancers of the vulva, vagina or cervix.
To reduce the risk for HPV-related cancers, the HPV vaccine is recommended for preteen boys and girls ages 11 and 12. However, the vaccine can be given effectively to boys and girls starting at age 9 and extending through age 26.
Not all gynecologic cancers can be prevented, but there are ways to reduce your risk for developing some of the types.
- Share your family health history with your doctor, and follow any recommendations your provider may make.
- Get regular Pap tests, which are preventive screenings for cervical cancer. Women age 21 and older should have a Pap smear every three years until age 30, and then every three to five years (up to five years if a human papillomavirus (HPV) test is done at the same time as a Pap smear). The American Cancer Society, the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology and the American Society for Clinical Pathology recommend co-testing using the Pap test and HPV test for women ages 30 to 65.
- Get tested for HPV if your doctor recommends it.
- Get the HPV vaccine or have your children (boys and girls) vaccinated. HPV causes almost all cervical and some vaginal cancers.
- Listen to your body. See your doctor immediately if you notice any change in your reproductive organs that last for more than two weeks, such as abnormal vaginal bleeding or pelvic pain.
- Make healthy choices, including eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, practicing safe sex and not smoking.
Gynecologic cancers have varying symptoms. Some of the most common signs include:
Cervical: Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
Ovarian: Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge; feeling full quickly or having difficulty eating; pain or pressure in the pelvis; a more frequent need to urinate and/or constipation; feeling bloated; pain in the abdomen or back.
Uterine: Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge; pain or pressure in the pelvis.
Vaginal: Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge; a more frequent need to urinate and/or constipation.
Vulvar: Itching, burning or tender vulva; changes in vulva color or skin such as a rash, sore or warts.
A team of specialists will work together to determine the best treatment plan for your type of gynecologic cancer. At Gundersen, this team includes a board-certified gynecologic oncologist and board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating all types and stages of gynecologic cancers, including cervical, uterine, ovarian, vaginal and vulvar cancers, as well as premalignant conditions that can lead to gynecologic cancer.
Working closely with Gundersen's multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists, as well as partners in Gynecology, your gynecologic oncologist performs in-office procedures and minimally invasive surgeries, evaluates progress and offers medical guidance.
Depending on your needs, your team of cancer specialists may recommend a treatment plan that includes:
- Palliative care
- Or a combination of the above options