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The treatment and prevention of gynecological cancers

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In partnership with Fox45

May 5, 2021
Gynecological cancers can affect any part of the female reproductive system, including the ovaries, uterus, cervix, vulva, and vagina. While uterine/endometrial cancer is the most common gynecological cancer, there are several other types that women should be aware of so that they can recognize potential signs and symptoms.

Kimberly Levinson, M.D., MPH, is the Director of Johns Hopkins Gynecologic Oncology at GBMC. She says, "Any symptom that you're having or are concerned about, get it looked at. We want to prevent or treat at the earliest stage that we can, which gives patients the best outcomes."

Endometrial cancer

Endometrial cancer is the most common type of uterine cancer, affecting approximately 66,570 women in the United States each year. One major risk factor for endometrial cancer is obesity because of the way excess body fat can affect your hormones.

"Obesity causes the body to create excess estrogen. This affects the uterine lining, which is where this type of cancer is formed," Dr. Levinson explains.

Other risk factors can include an early menstruation age and older biological age. Fortunately, says Dr. Levinson, endometrial cancer is one of the few gynecological cancers that can be detected at an early stage because it frequently produces abnormal vaginal bleeding. That, she remarks, is a good thing.

"Because many of these cancers are identified at early stages, they're often less aggressive types that we can cure with surgery."

Treatment for endometrial cancer usually includes a minimally invasive surgery, followed by an assessment to see if additional treatment is needed. If you notice any post-menopausal bleeding or any abnormal pre-menopause bleeding, Dr. Levinson recommends reaching out to your gynecologist to get it checked as quickly as possible.

Ovarian cancer

The American Cancer Society predicts that approximately 21,410 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021. While it is less common than endometrial cancer, it is usually more serious.

"Ovarian cancer tends to present in the later stages and usually requires more challenging treatments," Dr. Levinson says. She adds that this is partly due to the vagueness of signs and symptoms – most tend to be similar symptoms of indigestion – and the lack of an early screening test for ovarian cancer. Risk factors can include age (half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older), obesity, and having children later in life.

Dr. Levinson approaches treating ovarian cancer like treating a chronic disease: with a long-term treatment plan in mind. She emphasizes there have been numerous advances in the treatment of ovarian cancer, including PARP inhibitors, a targeted therapy that helps repair DNA.

"It's changed the prognosis for so many patients," she says. "It shows them there is hope even though it is a tough disease to handle."

Treatment for ovarian cancer usually includes surgery and chemotherapy.

Vulvar/vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancers are extremely rare, affecting around 6,230 women in the U.S. each year. Dr. Levinson notes that what makes these types of cancers hard to spot is the inability to recognize changes in the affected area.

"It's in an area we can see but not many women are accustomed to looking at closely," she explains. "It can look like anything, so anything out-of-the-ordinary on the vulva needs to be biopsied because it's hard for even a trained eye to tell."

Risk factors include exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), age (the average age at diagnosis is 65), and smoking. Dr. Levinson says treatment for vaginal cancer usually includes surgery with radiation and chemotherapy if the cancer has spread.

A cancer diagnosis will affect so many parts of a patient's life, and Dr. Levinson believes it's her responsibility to provide care and guidance from diagnosis to remission. Staying with the patients throughout their journey gives her the ability to form a relationship with each patient and make sure they have every option for treatment and care presented to them.

"There are so many people that work together to provide the best comprehensive care for our patients. Even if a patient comes in and gets surgery and is cured, we will still follow up with surveillance."

She also emphasizes the importance of calling your doctor if anything feels off.

"Preventing or treating at the earliest stage that we can gives patients the best outcomes."

Learn more about gynecologic oncology at GBMC by visiting their website.
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