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Preventing and Treating Gynecologic Cancers: Everything a Woman Should Know

July 24, 2015
According to 2014 data from the American Cancer Society, an estimated 95,000 new cases of gynecologic cancer are diagnosed each year and approximately 29,000 deaths occur. Gynecologic cancers are defined as cancers that affect organs within the female reproductive system, including the cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vagina and vulva. Awareness of the symptoms is often the best defense for women.

Like many other forms of the disease, symptoms of gynecologic cancers are location-specific. “Endometrial cancer is the most common type of gynecologic cancer in the United States, and our ability to catch it early depends on women responding to symptoms of bleeding,” says Kimberly Levinson, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at GBMC’s Sandra & Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute. “Any episode of post-menopausal bleeding is abnormal and is a symptom that should be examined by a gynecologist.” Though not every episode of post-menopausal bleeding indicates a pre-cancerous or cancerous lesion, the bleeding is often an opportunity to catch atypical cell growth early.

The important thing is that women are aware of the symptoms, aware of the screenings available and aware of how gynecologic cancers can be treated if they do occur.
Ovarian cancer is the most difficult to detect early, as there is no good screening mechanism for it. It spreads quickly and might not cause symptoms until its advanced stages. Patients tend to report persistent symptoms of abdominal bloating, changes in bowel or bladder habits and feeling full quickly. Conversely, cervical cancer is easily detected through screening and is slow-growing with a long pre-malignant state, meaning physicians can often stop the disease before it spreads. However, in order to do so, patients must keep up with regular screening practices so that the pre-malignant stages can be detected.

Pap smears and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing can help identify women at risk for developing cervical cancer so that abnormal cells can be removed before they become invasive. HPV is a known cause of cervical cancer and a vaccine is available. “HPV-associated cervical cancer can largely be prevented via screening and vaccination,” says Dr. Levinson. “It is critical to vaccinate our daughters and sons prior to exposure to the virus so we can keep them from contracting it in the first place.”

Vulvar and vaginal cancers are the rarest gynecologic cancers, often presenting with symptoms such as itching, irritation or pain, or simply a raised or visible lesion. It can be difficult to distinguish benign lesions from malignant ones, so all lesions should be examined and biopsies may be necessary.

Treatments for gynecologic cancers include minimally invasive surgeries such as robotic surgery, laparoscopic surgery and single-incision surgery as well as more extensive open abdominal procedures, which are offered at GBMC’s Women’s Surgical Center. Minimally invasive procedures have drastically changed treatment for gynecologic cancer patients. According to Dr. Levinson, the development of minimally invasive techniques has yielded tremendous improvements in patient outcomes. “Recovery times are quicker and infection rates, pain scores and other surgical complications are significantly decreased.”

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