Cancer of the female reproductive organs includes cancers of the uterus (the most common gynecologic cancer), ovaries, cervix, fallopian tubes, vulva and vagina. 80,000 American women receive a diagnosis of some form of gynecologic cancer every year. The risk of getting cancer increases the older a woman gets.
Types of gynecologic cancer
Usually slow-growing, this cancer may not produce symptoms, but can be detected by getting regular Pap tests and HPV tests. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
This cancer forms in the lining of the uterus and is usually an adenocarcinoma (a cancer that originates in cells that produce mucus and other fluids).
Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas (cancer that begins in the cells on the ovary surface) or malignant germ cell tumors (cancer that originates in egg cells).
Gestational Trophoblastic Tumor
A rare cancer than begins in the tissue that surrounds a fertilized egg in the uterus. Most of these tumors are benign, but some are malignant and can spread to other parts of the body.
A rare cancer that forms in muscle or other tissues of the uterus, usually after menopause.
Cancer of the vagina is most often squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the cells lining the vagina. Adenocarcinoma is a cancer that originates in glandular cells in the vaginal lining.
This rare cancer affects the external female genital organs, including the clitoris, vaginal lips, and the opening to the vagina.
It is important to note that the symptoms listed below can be caused by conditions other than gynecologic cancer. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis of cancer.
- Itching or burning of the vulva
- Changes in vulva color or skin, such as rash, sores, warts
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pelvic pain or feeling of pressure
- Pain in the back or abdomen
- Swelling in one leg
- Continuous feeling of a full bladder
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent indigestion or nausea
Treatment options vary according to the size, stage and location of the tumor. The following list is a general overview. Treatment for specific gynecologic cancers should be discussed with your medical team.
- Advanced robotic surgery A minimally invasive technique that shortens recovery time
- Fertility-conserving surgery for women of child-bearing age
- Intraoperative Radiotherapy (IORT)
A treatment that delivers a high dose of radiation to the tumor during surgery. IORT reduces the exposure of healthy tissues to radiation and allows treatment of tumors that are considered inoperable.
This highly targeted technology places radioactive material either directly inside a tumor or very close to it, sparing healthy tissue. Brachytherapy can be delivered at a low-dose rate (LDR) during a period of weeks or months, or at a high-dose rate (HDR) over a short period of time. Your radiation oncologist will recommend the best approach for your cancer.
Very high levels of heat are used to kill small cancer tumors. Lower heat levels can be combined with other forms of radiation and chemotherapy for enhanced effectiveness.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) can be effective in treating gynecologic cancers. This technology can be focused very precisely so that healthy tissue near the tumor is not injured.
Gynecologic cancers are a diverse group of diseases, so research is taking place on a broad range of subjects. Here are just a few of the areas under study:
Scientists are studying the genes that cause some gynecologic cancers. The goals are to find better ways to detect the genes and assess risk, and to develop new drugs to help prevent and treat the diseases.
This promising cancer treatment uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells while sparing normal cells. The substances target the cancer cells’ “programming” that makes them different from normal, healthy cells.
Work is being done on tumor vaccines that program the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells alone. Scientists are also studying artificial versions of the antibodies our bodies make to fight infection and designing them to focus on specific sites within the cancer cell.