Gynaecologic oncology is the field of medicine that focuses on cancers related to the female reproductive system, including ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer, cervical cancer and vulvar cancer. It is the fourth most common type of cancer in women, affecting approximately one in every 20 women.
The symptoms of the gynaecological cancers are very vague and women often don’t take the signs seriously and only consult a doctor when it becomes too late. Some of the symptoms that manifest when a woman suffers from either one of the cancers are as follows:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Vaginal bleeding during, after sexual intercourse or inter-menstrual bleeding
- White discharge from vagina
- Enlarged lymph nodes and swelling in the groin
- Pain in the pelvic area
- Persistent abdominal swelling or bloating
- Swollen legs for no major reason
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite or constantly feeling full
- Constant fatigue
- Persistent indigestion or nausea
Even if a woman faces risk factors that could trigger gynaecological cancers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she would develop one. A lot of women have at least one risk factor which may never develop into a gynaecological cancer, while others with a gynaecological cancer may not have had any known risk factors. The causes and reasons behind many gynaecological cancers haven’t been fully understood yet, but there are a number of factors that can increase the risk. These include:
- Increasing age
- Having a strong family history of gynaecological cancer
- Identified gene mutations
- Reproductive history such as child-bearing
- Exposure to hormones – produced by the body or taken as medication
- Exposure to Diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb
- Viral infections, such as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
- Lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking
Diagnosis of a gynaecological cancer may involve a number of tests depending on the symptoms. The tests include:
- A physical examination, with a pelvic examination
- A Pap smear
- Blood tests such as a CA125
- Imaging tests – which may include a transvaginal ultrasound or a CT scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or PET scans may also be suggested.
- Taking a sample of tissue for examination under a microscope, a process called biopsy.
Treatment for gynaecological cancers depends on which organ it has affected, as well as, the stage and type of the disease, the severity of symptoms and the woman’s general health. Treatment often involves surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible, and to determine its stage (how far the cancer may have spread). Once the stage of cancer has been determined, one of the following methods are used to fight the cancerous cells:
- Surgery: In this process, the doctors remove cancer tissue in an operation.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy may cause side effects, but these often get better or go away when treatment is over. Chemotherapy drugs may be given in several forms, including pills or through an IV (intravenous) injection.
- Radiation: Radiation uses high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to try to kill the cancer cells and stop them from spreading. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer is.