Female Cancers Below the Belt
Gynecologic Oncology is a sub-specialty within the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology established and dedicated solely to caring for the unique set of cancers that occur only in women. Our primary focus is the diagnosis and treatment management of reproductive cancers which include malignancies of the ovaries, uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, vagina and vulva. Our physicians are experts in gynecologic oncology surgeries, including minimally invasive robotic surgery, and in the administration and management of chemotherapy for gynecologic cancers.
Cancer of the ovary is a disease that affects one or both ovaries, the two glands on either side of the uterus. Certain risk factors are associated with ovarian cancer. The following factors have been shown to increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Age older than 55 years
- Family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, or endometrial cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus)
- Personal history of breast cancer
- Never having had children
If you have any of the following symptoms, and they do not go away, are frequent, or get worse over time, you should contact your health care provider:
- Bloating or an increase in abdominal size
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
A woman’s cervix (the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina) is covered by a thin layer of tissue made up of cells. Healthy cells grow, divide, and are replaced as needed. Cancer of the cervix occurs when these cells change. Cancer cells divide more rapidly. They may grow into deeper cell layers or spread to other organs. The cancer cells eventually form a mass of tissue called a tumor. Risk factors include the following:
- A personal history of dysplasia of the cervix, vagina, or vulva
- A family history of cervical cancer
- Certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia
- Problems with the immune system
- Having a mother who took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy
The first signs may be abnormal bleeding, spotting, or watery discharge from the vagina. Menstrual bleeding may be heavier than usual, and bleeding may occur after sex. Signs of advanced cancer can include pelvic pain, problems urinating, and swollen legs. If the cancer has spread to nearby organs or the lymph nodes, the tumors can affect how those organs work. For instance, a tumor might press on your bladder or block blood flow in a vein. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your health care provider immediately.
Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer
There are different types of cancer of the uterus. The most common type is endometrial cancer. Endometrial cancer affects the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. Endometrial cancer is the most common type of gynecologic cancer in the United States. About 2 or 3 women out of every 100 women will develop endometrial cancer during their lifetimes. Endometrial cancer is rare in women younger than 40 years. It most often occurs in women around age 60 years. Certain factors can increase a woman’s risk of uterine cancer:
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Never having a baby
- Starting menstrual periods at an early age (before age 12 years)
- Late menopause
- History of cancer of the ovary or colon
- Use of tamoxifen to treat or prevent breast cancer
- Family history of endometrial cancer
- History of diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder disease, or thyroid disease
- Long-term use of estrogen without progesterone to treat menopause
- Long-term use of high–dose birth control pills
- Cigarette smoking
Some of these risk factors are related to the use of estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone produced in a woman’s ovaries. It can be taken after menopause, when a woman’s ovaries stop producing estrogen (hormone therapy). Taken alone, estrogen increases the risk of endometrial cancer, if a woman still has her uterus. When estrogen is taken with another hormone, progesterone, a woman is protected against this increase.
Abnormal bleeding, spotting, new discharge from your vagina, or bleeding or spotting after menopause all are symptoms of endometrial cancer. These symptoms may be constant or come and go. The cause of any abnormal bleeding or discharge, especially after menopause, should be checked by your health care provider.