Health & Medicine

Understanding gynecologic cancers is key to prevention

Awareness about cancer in women has been heightened in recent years, but we can never talk about it too much. While breast cancer detection and treatment tends to get the lion's share of media attention, gynecologic cancers also are worthy of our consideration.

The most recent statistics show that in 2009, 84,155 women in the United States were diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, and 27,813 died from a form of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The five main types of cancer that affect female reproductive organs are ovarian, uterine, vaginal, vulvar and — the most preventable — cervical. A sixth type that affects the fallopian tubes is extremely rare.

Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40, with the largest number of cases occurring in women over age 60. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other gynecologic cancer, but it accounts for only about 3 percent of all cancers in women.

Uterine cancer usually is found in women going through menopause. It is the fourth most common cancer in women in the United States and the most commonly diagnosed gynecologic cancer.

Vaginal cancer occurs in the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body. Vulvar cancer arises in the outermost part of the female genitals and most often occurs on the inner edges of the labia. While all women are at risk for these cancers, they are very rare. Together, they account for only about 7 percent of all gynecologic cancers in the United States.

Cervical cancer is one of the most highly preventable types of the disease because of the availability of effective screening tests and a vaccine that prevents human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex and is the main cause of cervical cancer.

All sexually active women are at risk for this type of cancer, but it occurs most often in those over age 30. Other factors that might increase your risk include: exposure to HPV, multiple sexual partners, early age at first intercourse, smoking, parity and immunosuppression.

A Pap smear is the most common screening used to detect the possible onset of cervical cancer. Quite simply, it is a microscopic examination of cells scraped from the opening of the cervix performed by an OB/GYN or primary care physician, usually during an annual physical. If any cells are abnormal, a secondary test will look for the presence of HPV, since this virus is what can cause these cell changes on the cervix. If both tests are negative, the risk for cervical cancer is very low and women can wait up to five years before another screening.

The best treatment is always prevention, and cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that may be entirely preventable because of a vaccine. HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over 6 months to protect against HPV infections. The vaccine is most beneficial to pre-teen girls and boys who have time to develop an immune response before becoming sexually active, but it is also recommended for teen girls and young women through age 26, as well as teen boys and young men through age 21.

All gynecologic cancers are highly treatable if detected in their early stages, so regular checkups are essential. If it's been awhile since your last exam or you are interested in learning more about the HPV vaccine, contact your ob/gyn. A simple screening today might save your life tomorrow.