Health Topics

Gynecologic Cancers: Paying Attention to Suspicious Symptoms

Gynecologic Cancers

Each year, approximately 106,000 women are diagnosed with cancer of the reproductive organs, including ovarian, uterine and cervical cancers. These diseases are collectively referred to as gynecologic cancers. Gynecologic cancers attack a woman's reproductive organs, including the:

  • Cervix
  • Uterus
  • Ovaries
  • Endometrium
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Vagina
  • Vulva

When they are caught early, gynecologic cancers can be treated successfully most of the time. Unfortunately, these cancers can be tricky to detect because symptoms may be absent or subtle until the cancer spreads to other organs. It’s important to be diligent about visiting your gynecologist annually for screenings and to report any possible symptoms, especially unexplained bleeding.

Ovarian Cancer

Cancer of the ovary is the second most common gynecologic malignancy. When found in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer can be cured 90 to 95 percent of the time. But because there are no symptoms, early ovarian cancer can be hard to detect.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Women typically seek care when they notice abdominal swelling due to the fluid that accumulates in the abdomen from ovarian cancer. Women may also notice urinary changes such as increased frequency or discomfort with urination. Many women with ovarian cancer complain of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Intolerance to certain foods

When these symptoms occur, the tumor has often already spread outside of the ovary. Unfortunately, there is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer.

Cervical Cancer

Cancer of the uterine cervix — also called cervical cancer — is the second most common cancer among women worldwide. Despite the dramatic decrease in cervical cancer in the United States, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 12,990 cases will be diagnosed every year, resulting in more than 4,120 deaths here.

Cervical Cancer Symptoms

The most common symptom is vaginal bleeding (following intercourse or between menses) and vaginal discharge. However, precancerous changes of the cervix (abnormal Pap smears, dysplasia, precancer) usually do not cause pain or any symptoms. Therefore, it is very important that all women be screened by a pelvic exam and a Pap test since precancerous changes are usually asymptomatic.

Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer affects more than 60,050 women in the United States each year. Approximately, 10,470 of these women will die each year from this disease. The two basic classes of uterine cancers are:

  1. Endometrial cancer
  2. Uterine sarcomas

Endometrial Cancer

Endometrial cancer, or cancer of the endometrium, is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system in the United States. It develops in the inner lining of the uterus (womb). The exact cause of endometrial cancer is unknown, but prolonged exposure to estrogen is known to increase the risk of this type of cancer.

Uterine Sarcoma

Uterine sarcoma is a very rare kind of cancer that forms in the endometrial or uterine muscles. Outcomes vary, depending on the type. However, uterine sarcomas tend to be more aggressive as a group, with a higher likelihood of early spread and recurrence than is typically seen in endometrial cancers.

Report Suspicious Symptoms to an Expert

Women with the following symptoms should consult a gynecologic oncologist:

  • A change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A sore in the pelvic area that does not heal
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump that either causes pain or can be seen in the pelvic area
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area

A gynecologic oncologist is a physician first trained in obstetrics and gynecology who has three to four additional years of training in gynecologic cancers. These gynecology oncology specialists combine knowledge of gynecology with expertise in detecting and treating cancers of the female reproductive system. Women who seek the care of a specially trained gynecologic oncologist before any surgery or medical treatment increase their odds for total cure.

Advanced Surgery, Decreased Pain

Improvements in the tools available and advanced training of surgeons are dramatically improving treatment of gynecologic cancers. Procedures that used to require completely opening the abdomen can now be completed through small incisions using a laparoscope. Minimally invasive options continue to expand, with some operations now possible through a single incision in the belly button that is less than 3 cm long.

The advent of robotic-assisted laparoscopy has prompted an increase in minimally invasive procedures in the gynecologic subspecialties. This type of surgery uses a computer-enhanced surgical system that:

  • Offers a 3-D view of the surgical field, including depth, magnification and high resolution
  • Utilizes instruments that are designed to mimic the movements of the human hands, wrists and fingers, allowing an extensive range of motion and more precision
  • Provides master controls that allow the surgeon to manipulate the instruments, translating the surgeon’s natural hand and wrist movements into corresponding, precise movements.

For the patient, robotic-assisted surgeries mean decreased blood loss, complications and hospital stays; faster recovery.

For more information on gynecologic cancers, please download our free Gynecological Cancers Treatment Guide.