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Understanding cervical, ovarian, and uterine cancers

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According to the latest estimates from the American Cancer Society, approximately 110,000 new cases of gynecologic cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2018. Sadly, another 32,120 women lost their lives to this condition this past year.

Worldwide, gynecological cancer—including cervical cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine or endometrial cancer—is not the leading type of cancer affecting women. Breast, lung and colorectal cancer are more common. However, gynecological cancer clearly can and does have an impact on women's health.

Understanding the signs, screening options, prevention and treatment strategies are essential for helping more women avoid and manage this challenging condition. It's why our team at SIU Medicine believes so strongly in raising awareness and remaining on the leading edge of diagnostic and therapeutic opportunities for women from all walks of life. 

Common types and causes of gynecologic cancers

Gynecologic cancer simply means that the cancer begins in some part of a woman's reproductive system. The most common types include:

  • Uterine Cancer: Also referred to as endometrial cancer, occurs when cancerous cells grow in the lining of the uterus
  • Ovarian Cancer: This occurs when cancerous cells grow in the ovaries (the part of the reproductive system where eggs are made); it usually (but not always) affects women over 50 
  • Cervical Cancer: Occurs when cancerous cells grow in the cervix (the lower and most narrow end of the uterus)

Additional types of gynecological cancer include vulvar and vaginal cancer.

While it's not always clear why some women develop gynecological cancer, certain risk factors exist. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes or metabolic syndrome
  • Smoking
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (for cervical cancer)
  • Certain medications (e.g., estrogen or estrogen receptor modulators)
  • Advancing age

Signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers

Often, there are no clear signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer. Many women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, for instance, are in the later stages of the disease by the time the condition is detected. 

When signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer do exist, they often include:

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Unusual bleeding and/or discharge from the vagina
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent indigestion or bloating

Screening, diagnosis and treatment of gynecologic cancers

Regular screening and early detection can improve outcomes. For example, pelvic exams and pap smears may help doctors detect cancerous cells. Most women need cervical screening once every 3-5 years. You may need screening more frequently depending on your personal history. 

A woman's specific cancer treatment depends on several factors, including her health status, cancer stage, and personal goals. That said, the most effective and comprehensive approach may include chemotherapy, radiation and/or surgery.

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with gynecologic cancer, contact SIU Medicine today with your questions. Our gynecologic oncologist and other medical health professionals can help you access the latest advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

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