Five main types of cancer affect a woman’s reproductive organs: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar. As a group, they are referred to as gynecologic cancers.
Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts. Gynecologic cancers begin in different places within a woman’s pelvis, which is the area below the stomach and in between the hip bones.
- Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. (The uterus is also called the womb.)
- Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus.
- Uterine cancer begins in the uterus, the pear-shaped organ in a woman’s pelvis where the baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
- Vaginal cancer begins in the vagina, which is the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
- Vulvar cancer begins in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs.
Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs and symptoms, different risk factors (things that may increase your chance of getting a disease), and different prevention strategies. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, and risk increases with age.
Prevention, screening and detection of gynecologic cancers
Gynecologic cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva are most often caused by the humanpapilloma virus (HPV), a group of over 150 virus types responsible for infection in certain sexually transmitted diseases. At present, there are two vaccines that protect against HPV types causing the majority of gynecological cancer cases. It is recommended to administer this vaccine to girls 11 and 12 years old. (Note: you can start administering the vaccine to girls 9 years old.) Preferably, girls should receive three doses of the vaccine before their first sexual contact. It can also be given to girls and women between 13 and 26 years of age who have not received any dose or who have not completed the series at a younger age. If you or someone close to you is in this age group, check with your doctor on this.
Screening involves testing to determine whether there is a disease before symptoms. The cancer screening tests are effective when they can detect the disease early. Early detection of disease can lead to more effective treatment. (The diagnostic tests are used when a person has symptoms. The purpose of diagnostic testing is to find out, that is, to diagnose the cause of symptoms, and also can be used to evaluate people who are considered to have a high risk of cancer.)
There is a screening test for one of the female cancers, cervical cancer, called a Pap test that can identify this cancer at an early stage, when treatment is most effective. The Pap test can also prevent it by identifying precancers, cell changes in the cervix that can develop into cancer if not treated properly. In addition to the Pap test, which is the primary screening of cervical cancer, there is another call HPV test, which identifies infection of human papillomavirus. The HPV test can be performed in women aged 30 years and older or women of any age and the results of the Pap test are not clear.
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