“Gynaecological cancer” – the phrase sounds scary, and many of us don’t know what this really means. What are the most common gynaecologic cancers and where can you get gynae cancer support?
In this blog, we’re going to dive into five types of gynaecological cancers - so you can learn about exactly how to detect gynaecological cancers and how to take better care of your health.
But before we learn about five gynae cancers, let's understand some basics.
what are gynaecological cancers?
Gynaecological cancer refers to any form of cancer that affects the female reproductive system.
It is amongst the most common categories of cancers in the world and affects thousands of women every year.
where can gynaecological cancers develop?
Gynaecological cancers can be triggered in any organ within the lower pelvis area, which include the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries.
what can cause gynaecologic cancers?
Gynaecological cancers, much like other forms of cancer, can be caused due to various reasons - including family history, exposure to chemicals, obesity and HPV.
what are some early symptoms of gynae cancers?
One of the most common gynaecological cancer symptoms is unusual or untimely bleeding.
It’s very common to not pay attention to one-off abnormal bleeding, but if this happens often then you should get a medical consultation.
Of course, irregular bleeding does not automatically mean that you have cancer. That said, it’s important to stay informed so you can be mindful of unusual changes in your body. This will enable you to seek any medical treatment at an early stage and prevent the cancer from spreading.
what are the 5 gynaecological cancers?
While there are many different types of gynaecological cancers, in this blog we will learn about the five most common female gynae cancers: cervical cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, vulval cancer and vaginal cancer.
what is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer grows on your cervix - which is often referred to as the neck of the uterus. It is the passage which connects your uterus with your vagina.
Cervical cancer is the most common gynae cancer - and almost 80% of cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted disease (STI), called Human Papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a group of viruses that can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and sexual activity.
While 8 out of 10 people will come in contact with HPV, the great news is that usually the virus goes away without any treatment.
However, depending on the strain of HPV, this can cause the growth of abnormal cells and lead to cervical cancer.
Learn more about HPV in our blog about HPV - everything you need to know.
what are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
While symptoms of cervical cancer may not develop till the cancer has started spreading, these are a few signs to look out for:
- Untimely bleeding between periods
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Pain and bleeding during sex
- Bleeding after sex
how can we detect cervical cancer?
The good news is that cervical cancer is the most preventable type of cancer.
Getting vaccinated against HPV before you're sexually active significantly reduces the risk of both infection and cervical cancer.
Getting regular gynae cancer tests such as a pap-smear test can also help detect the growth of any unusual HPV cells before they develop into cancer.
what is uterine cancer?
Uterine cancer grows in your womb or uterus.
Located in your pelvis, the uterus is where a baby grows during pregnancy.
This form of cancer is also known as endometrial cancer as most uterine cancers develop in the endometrium lining of the uterus (which sheds during periods).
Uterine cancer can affect anyone with a uterus at any age, but is more common in postmenopausal women.
what are the symptoms of uterine cancer?
Few common symptoms of uterine cancer include:
- Vaginal bleeding after the menopause
- Bleeding between periods
- Unusually heavy bleeding
- Blood-stained vaginal discharge (pink, brown, red)
how can we detect uterine cancer?
Unfortunately there are no cancer screening tests specifically designed for uterine cancer. So it’s important to go see a doctor if you experience any abnormal symptoms in your menstrual health.
what is ovarian cancer?
Ovarian cancer develops in one or both of our ovaries.
Ovaries are small organs which are located on either side of the uterus. They play a key role in our menstrual health and reproductive system as they release hormones to keep our body balanced and also release eggs for fertilisation.
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system and while it can happen to anyone at any age, is most common amongst postmenopausal women.
what are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
There aren’t any specific symptoms for ovarian cancer, so it’s important to go see a doctor if you notice anything unusual such as:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Feeling bloated on your lower abdomen
- Difficulty in eating and loss of appetite
- Feeling the need to pee very often
- Indigestion or any sort of bowel changes
- Unexplained fatigue
how can we detect ovarian cancer?
To detect ovarian cancer, a doctor will usually take a blood sample and do a transvaginal ultrasound to see any unusual activity in your ovaries.
what is vulval cancer?
Vulval cancer develops in your external genitalia, and is also known as vaginal cancer.
It can develop in 5 different areas - your labia minora, labia majora, pubic mound, perineum (the skin between the vagina and anus) and clitorus.
While vulval cancer is a rare gynaecological cancer, and is most common amongst women who have hit menopause.
what are the symptoms of vulval cancer?
Some symptoms of vulvar cancer include:
- Itching and burning on the vaginal skin
- An open sore or visible growth of a lump
- Raised patches on the vagina
- Hard or swollen nodes in the groin
- Bleeding or pain while peeing
- A mole that changes shape
how can we detect vulval cancer?
The best way to find out if anything is wrong with your vagina is to grab a hand mirror and have a look.
If you notice anything unusual then you should consult a gynaecologist.
what is vaginal cancer?
Vaginal cancer develops in the tissues that make up your vagina.
It is the least common gynaecological cancer and usually affects women over 75 years.
In some cases vaginal cancer can be due to the presence of HPV. It can also take the form of ulcers or lumps in and around your cervix.
what are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?
Like other gynaecological cancers, vaginal cancer doesn’t show any early signs. But you should look out for symptoms such as:
- Blood-stained vaginal discharge
- Unexpected vaginal bleeding
- Vaginal and pelvic pain
- Any growth or lump in your vagina
- Persistent vaginal itch
- pain while peeing or having sex
The most common symptom is unexpected vaginal bleeding, but that can also be because of other non-benign reasons. So it’s always good to see a doctor if you notice unusual vaginal bleeding.
how can we detect vaginal cancer?
Biopsy is a common procedure and the only sure way to find out if the abnormal growth of cells is cancer.
This involves scraping some tissue from your vaginal area and sending it to a lab to detect any cancerous cells.
frequently asked questions
How to prevent gynecologic cancer?
Unfortunately, as with most cancers, none of us are completely risk-free. Genetic and environmental factors both contribute to causing cancer and in many cases, it’s impossible to tell why someone gets cancer.
While it’s impossible to prevent cancer, the best you can do is to recognise the signs and symptoms as early as possible and seek immediate treatment.
And of course, getting the HPV vaccine is a fantastic way to minimise the risk of cervical cancer.
How often should I get gynae cancer screenings?
There can be wide variations in the type of gynaecological cancers and no two people will have the same symptoms.
So it’s crucial to keep a check on your body for any unusual changes in your lower pelvis area.
It’s recommended to get a pap-smear test every 2 years after turning 21 to detect the presence of HPV and cervical cancer.
Am I more likely to get cancer if I have a gynae cancer history in my family?
You may be at a higher risk for developing gynaecological cancers if you have family history with specific types of cancers linked to breasts or your lower pelvic region.
That being said, many cancers can develop due to toxic exposures through food, smoking and pollution, and it can be difficult to understand exactly what causes gynae cancers.
What are the different types of gynae cancer tumour markers?
Gynaecological tumour markers are biochemical substances associated with tumours. This can be identified in biological fluids such as blood, urine or fluid from cysts.
CA 125, which is also known as Cancer Antigen test is often recommended in cases with suspicions of gynaecological cancers. This test calculates the risk of developing the disease and can be used to access the patient’s response to treatments.
What are the different stages of gynaecological cancers?
Gynae cancer staging, like all other cancers, involves 4 stages - which are defined by how much the cancer has spread.
Stage 1 means the cancer is only present in the organ where it initially developed.
Stage 2 involves a localised spread of cancer to nearby organs.
Stage 3 means that the cancer has started spreading across your whole pelvic region and is affecting many other gynaecological parts of the body.
Stage 4 means that the cancer is spreading beyond your pelvic region and can be found in other organs of your body, such as liver, lungs or the brain.
How are gynaecologic cancers diagnosed?
As discussed earlier in the blog, there are various ways to diagnose gynae cancers and each cancer requires a different set of tests.
Do gynaecologists diagnose cancer?
Cancer screening is a normal part of a routine gynaecological check up.
Your gynaecologist might perform a breast exam and run a pap-smear test to detect the presence of cancer.
What does gynaecologic cancer treatment involve?
The treatment for gynae cancer involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Gynae cancer patients will each require a different set of treatments and care, in line with the type of cancer they have, and the stage of cancer.