Gynecologic Cancer: What You Need to Know

While less common than breast cancer, the rising incidence of gynecologic cancers in recent years has become concerning.

Gynecologic cancers include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Fallopian tube cancer
  • Primary peritoneal cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

“In the early stages of some gynecologic cancers, the symptoms may be vague, and some women experience no symptoms at all,” says Courtney Griffiths, DO, Gynecologic Oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. “It is important to know the warning signs and for women to get regular, annual visits with their gynecologist. This increases the chances of early detection when cancer is most treatable.”

All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers. The risk of gynecologic cancers increases with age, family history, and certain lifestyles, but Dr. Griffiths offers these important guidelines.

Know Your Body

Become familiar with what’s normal for you, and pay attention to any changes occurring in your body. Watch for:

  • Pelvic pressure, fullness, or pain
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Painful urination
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Changes in bowel and bladder patterns that continue or worsen

Talk to your doctor about any symptoms that persist for several weeks.

Learn Your Family History

Approximately 80% of ovarian cancers are detected at an advanced stage, making them more difficult to treat. If you have ovarian, uterine (endometrial), or breast cancer in your family, your risk for these cancers increases. Inform your primary care provider or gynecologists if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. They may recommend that you meet with a genetic counselor to evaluate your risk and discuss genetic testing and risk modification strategies.

If someone in your family has or has had colon cancer, your risk of developing gynecologic cancer increases due to a genetic mutation that links these two cancers. Genetic counseling and testing may help determine your risk and identify the steps you can take to reduce it.

Understanding Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers are often linked to HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, by age 50, approximately 80% of women (and men) have been infected with some type of HPV, but most people never know that they have the virus. HPV is the cause of approximately 70% of all cervical cancers.

“Fortunately, most women who are infected with HPV at a young age do not go on to develop cervical cancer,” Dr. Griffiths states. “In many young women, HPV infections resolve on their own with the help of our body’s immune system. However, there is no cure and if persistent HPV is detected, surgery may be necessary to eliminate the abnormal cells in the cervix.”

A vaccine for HPV is available. It is safe and highly effective in preventing infection from many of the high-risk types of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. The vaccine also protects against other male female genital cancers,  oral and throat (tonsil and tongue) cancers, and anal cancer.

The CDC recommends that all girls and boys get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, but it can be started as young as age 9. For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, the vaccine series should be given before the child is exposed to the virus. The FDA has now expanded its use from age 27 up until the age of 45, however discuss with your doctor whether they recommend you get the vaccine if you fall within this age group.

When Should You Be Tested?

Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer with a screening test that can detect precancerous cells or cancer in its early stages. The Pap test checks for changes in the cells of the cervix that indicate cancer or precancerous conditions.

Below are the gynecological cancer screening recommendations for women at average risk:

Age 21 to 29

  • Pap test every three years.

Age 30 to 64

  • HPV test, with or without a Pap test, every five years (preferred) OR a Pap test every three years.

Age 65 and older

  • Screening exams may not be needed if there have been no abnormal Pap or HPV test results in the past 10 years. Discuss this with your doctor.

“Although new drug therapies and minimally invasive surgical procedures have made treatments for gynecologic cancers more effective, early detection and prevention remains the best opportunity to battle these cancers,” Dr. Griffiths says.

The Gynecologic Cancer Center at MD Anderson at Cooper is the largest and most experienced gynecologic cancer treatment program in South Jersey. For more than three decades, our team of specialists has provided advanced, compassionate care to women with gynecologic cancers.

Schedule an Appointment Today

To learn more about the gynecologic cancer services available at MD Anderson at Cooper or to schedule an appointment, call 856.536.1214 or click here.

Learn More

To learn more about HPV and cervical cancer, click here to watch a video featuring David Warshal, MD, FACOG, Head of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at MD Anderson at Cooper, and Courtney Griffiths, DO, Gynecologic Oncologist at MD Anderson at Cooper. This video was filmed when Dr. Griffiths was completing her training as a gynecologic oncology fellow. She now a full-time member of our faculty.

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