Cervical, ovarian and three other types of gynaecological cancers that affect women; timely screening key for prevention
Estimates suggest that every year in India, more than 1,22,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 67,000 of these patients die
There is a lack of awareness in the world when it comes to gynaecological cancers. Since many women’s issues, like menstruation, are considered to be taboo in certain societies, the symptoms of gynaecological cancers often go under the radar. Most of these cancers are preventable and can be treated if diagnosed early.
However, a majority of women in India do not have much knowledge about these cancers. Lack of access to healthcare facilities and the absence of a comprehensive screening programme further affects the prognosis as most women get diagnosed at a much more advanced stage of cancer.
Gynaecological cancers affect the reproductive organs in women and are five different types - cervical, vaginal, ovarian, uterine and vulvar. Out of these, ovarian and cervical cancers are more common than the rest. Estimates suggest that every year in India, more than 1,22,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and over 67,000 of these patients die.
In US, the month of September is observed as Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. But women in every part of the world need to know the signs and symptoms of the types of cancers.
Here is all you need to know about the five different types of gynaecological cancers:
1. Cervical cancer
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the narrow opening that connects the uterus and the vagina. It is the second most common type of cancer and a leading cause of death in women in developed countries.
Cause: About 91 percent of all cases of cervical cancer occur due to a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Multiple pregnancies, obesity, lower socioeconomic status, malnutrition, multiple sexual partners and being sexually active at an early age are some risk factors for cervical cancer.
Symptoms: The symptoms of cervical cancer do not appear until the cancer affects nearby tissues. After this, women experience abnormal bleeding, which could be post-sex, between menstruation, or after menopause. Pelvic pain, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, blood in urine and faecal and urinary incontinence are some signs of cervical cancer.
2. Ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer is the third most common gynaecological cancer in women and is responsible for most of the deaths that occur due to gynaecological cancers in the world. It is estimated that about 1,90,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed worldwide every year.
Risk factors: Older age (above 50 years), a family history of ovarian cancer, endometriosis, obesity, smoking and hormone replacement therapy are some of the risk factors of ovarian cancer.
Symptoms: Just like cervical cancer, symptoms of ovarian cancer do not show until the cancer has advanced significantly. Abdominal pain and bloating, nausea, a heavy feeling in the pelvis, irregular menstruation, weight loss, unexplained back pain that worsens over time are some symptoms of ovarian cancer.
3. Vaginal cancer
Vaginal cancer only accounts for about 1-2 percent of all gynaecological cancers and is particularly rare. It is mostly diagnosed in women when they are above the age of 60.
Risk factors: HPV or HIV infection, multiple pregnancies, another gynaecological cancer, smoking and previous exposure to radiation therapy are some risk factors for vaginal cancer.
Symptoms: Abnormal vaginal bleeding, which could be after sex, between menstruation or after menopause, pelvic pain, painful urination and pain during sex are some symptoms of vaginal cancer.
4. Vulvar cancer
Vulvar cancer mainly affects the outer genital organs in women. It is also a rare type of gynaecological cancer that is seen in about 1 to 3 women per 1,00,000 in the world.
Risk factors: Vulvar cancer is most commonly seen in postmenopausal women between the age of 60 and 70. HPV infection, obesity, diabetes, cervical cancer and high blood pressure are some risk factors for vulvar cancer.
Symptoms: Vulvar cancer symptoms show up in the later stages of the disease and include the presence of a wart or lump on the vulva, pain and itching in the vulvar region, painful urination, bleeding and reddish and raised patches on the vulva.
5. Uterine cancer
Uterine cancer begins anywhere in the uterus, however, most commonly, it begins in the endometrium, which is the inner lining of the uterus.
Risk factor: Older age (more than 50 years of age), obesity, infertility, early menopause, family history of uterine cancer and diabetes are some risk factors for uterine cancer.
Symptoms: Vaginal bleeding (even after menopause), painful sex, difficulty urinating and pelvic pain are some symptoms of uterine cancer.
Prevention and screening
Being aware of the symptoms of various types of gynaecological cancer is the first step towards catching these cancers early. A healthy diet and lifestyle may reduce some of the risk factors for most types of gynaecological cancers.
Early screening, especially if you are at high risk can help identify the cancer before you start to show symptoms. Pap smears are recommended to be done every three years for women between the age of 21 and 29 and every five years after the age of 30 to identify cervical cancer.
Similarly, HPV (which is a risk factor) can be prevented by timely immunisation. You can get the vaccine as early as nine years, though it is mostly given between ages 11 and 12 and until 26 years of age. The vaccine is currently not recommended for those above the age of 26.
For more information, read our article on Cervical cancer.
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