What to Know About Gynecologic Cancers' Risks, Symptoms and Treatment

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Friday marks the end of September and with it the end of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. But advocates hope awareness of the diseases won't go away.

Cancers that make up the group may be less common compared to other types, but all women are at risk for developing gynecologic cancers, and the risk increases with age.

For families who have been forever changed by a gynecologic cancer, the impact is significant no matter how unexpected. Gynecologic oncology is somewhat broad because it covers different parts the female genital tract, but there are some within the group that are more common and present important red flags.

As of 2019, lung cancer and breast cancer were the two deadliest cancers in women, followed by colorectal and pancreatic cancers. Next on the list is uterine or endometrial cancer, the most common gynecologic cancer in the U.S.

Dr. Lee-may Chen of UCSF's Gynecologic Oncology Department says as with all cancers, the key to reducing risk for an advanced version of the disease is knowing more about yourself and your family.

"Abnormal bleeding, pelvic symptoms, bloating, distention – these symptoms should warrant assessment from a women’s health provider," Chen said.

There are three cancers within gynecologic oncology to consider: uterine cancer, ovarian cancer and cervical cancer.

Uterine cancer is the most common and is usually associated with a hormonal imbalance. It can also be linked to hereditary cancer risk. But many times obesity can increase the risk of developing uterine cancer.

A hallmark symptom is abnormal bleeding.

"Most of the time uterine cancer presents early and can be treatable through surgery," Chen said. "But with advanced disease, the cancer can still be quite deadly."

Ovarian cancer typically has been thought to be the deadliest in the group because it presents at a more advanced stage. Symptoms can be subtle and vague, but doctors now know patients still show some symptoms before final diagnosis. Those include bloating and distention, among others.

A quarter of ovarian cancers are associated with family history.

Cervical cancers are more common worldwide, especially where vaccination and early sceenings are not as prevalent. Here in the U.S., HPV vaccination is routinely recommended for males and females.

Papsmear screenings are a big part of early detection because they help identify early lesions even at a pre-cancer state.

"Gynecologic cancers sometimes are (excluded) from conversation because they are down there, they relate to parts of the body that people have less awareness about or are less familiar with," Chen said.

For that reason, Chen recommends maintaining awareness of your own body, your own anatomy, awareness of symptoms and being open to talking.

Chen and her team at UCSF say research and support for more trials are important in advancing the progress of therapies, extending lives and hopefully even preventing the diseases from progressing.

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