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Understanding Gynecologic Oncology

When thinking about Cancer many people immediately think of breast or colon cancer but few think of ovarian or uterine cancer. However, according to the Center for Disease Control over 80,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer each year. In fact, uterine cancer is the 4th most common cancer in females.

What is gynecologic cancer?

Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman's reproductive organs.  While they are often discussed as a group, each gynecologic cancer is unique. Each has different signs, symptoms, and risk factors (things that may increase your chance of getting each type of cancer). For some of these cancers, there are ways to lower your risk.

The main types of gynecologic cancer:

  • 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.
  • Gestational Trophoblastic Disease -- tumors that derive from pregnancy related tissue.


Risk Factors for Gynecologic Cancers

While all women are at risk for gynecologic cancer, some factors can increase a woman's chances of developing the disease.

  • Uterine cancer: Never pregnant, beginning menstruation early, late menopause, diabetes, use of estrogen alone (called unopposed estrogen) for hormone replacement therapy, family history of uterine cancer, high blood pressure and complex atypical hyperplasia. Tamoxifen, a drug frequently used to treat breast cancer, increases the risk of uterine cancer slightly. A genetic syndrome called hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC) may also increase a woman's risk.
  • Cervical cancer: Strongly associated with sexually transmitted diseases, especially several strains of human papilloma virus (HPV), sexual activity at an early age, multiple sexual partners, smoking and obesity.
  • Ovarian cancer: Obesity, never pregnant, unopposed estrogen, personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer, genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, HNPCC.
  • Vaginal cancer: History of genital warts or an abnormal Pap test. There is an increased risk of clear cell carcinoma in women whose mothers took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant. Women previously treated for carcinoma in-situ or invasive cervical cancer also have a higher risk of developing vaginal cancer.