From WCMS The Physician’s Voice:
Gynecologic Cancer Awareness
written by Dr. Blair Harkness from Hope Women’s Cancer Center.
September is Gynecologic cancer awareness month. Each year about 72,000 woman are diagnosed with gynecologic cancers in the United States. Gynecologic cancers arise from the female reproductive tissues including the cervix, uterus, ovaries, vulva and vagina.
Cervical cancer is largely a sexually transmitted disease. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus(HPV). At least half of sexually active people will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives, but most will not get cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is largely preventable with a vaccine against HPV. HPV vaccine is recommended for girls ideally between ages 11-12, but at least before onset of sexually activity. Pap smears and testing for HPV virus can help identify precancerous cells that can be treated to prevent cervical cancer. Vulvar and vaginal cancers are quite rare and are also most commonly associated with the HPV virus. Smoking increases the risk of cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer are typically treated with surgery and/or radiation.
Uterine cancer is the most common of the gynecologic cancers and is usually found at an early stage because it presents with symptoms that cause women to seek evaluation from their physician. The most common type of uterine cancer arises in the inside lining of the uterus or the endometrium. The most common symptom of uterine cancer is abnormal uterine bleeding especially after menopause, but this can occur in younger women as well. Risk factors for uterine cancer include being obese, being over age 50, taking estrogen without progesterone after menopause, and chronically having irregular periods before starting menopause. Women with chronic irregular menses before menopause and women with any bleeding after menopause should see their physician for further evaluation. Most uterine cancer does not run in families; however a small percent can run in families with other cancers such as colon and ovarian cancer. Women can reduce their risk of uterine cancer by getting regular physical exercise and maintaining a normal body weight. Uterine cancer is typically treated with surgery, but a small percentage of cases may require chemotherapy and/or radiation as well.
Ovarian cancer is a relatively rare cancer. Unfortunately there are no effective screening tests for ovarian cancer. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating, abdominal pain/distention, feeling full quickly while eating, pelvic pain/pressure, and changes in bathroom habits with changes in bowel or bladder function. Be in tune with your body and if you have changes that you cannot explain, talk to your doctor. If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer ask your doctor to refer you to a board certified gynecologic oncologist. Treatment of ovarian cancer most commonly involves both surgery and chemotherapy. Proper surgery is important for best outcomes. Chemotherapy is a liquid medication most commonly given through the patient’s veins, but for ovarian cancer in most cases outcomes are improved if chemotherapy is given as a wash inside the belly as well, call intra-peritoneal treatment. Gynecologic oncologists are trained in this specialized chemotherapy treatment.
Gynecologic oncologists are OB/GYN physicians with 3 to 4 years of additional training in the management of gynecologic cancers. Board certified gynecologic oncologists have met strict criteria for training and experience in the management of gynecologic cancers. If you have been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer ask your doctor to refer you to a board certified gynecologic oncologist.
C. Blair Harkness, MD
Dr. Harkness is a Board Certified Gynecologic Oncologist at Hope Women’s Cancer Center. He attended Medical School University of South Florida, took his residency training at MAHEC, and took a fellowship at the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the Western Carolina Medical Society.