Gynecologic cancers cause more than 30,000 deaths in the U.S. and affect more than 95,000 women every year. These include ovarian, uterine, cervical, vaginal, an vulvar cancers. For Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing information about each type of gynecologic cancer. In part one of this series, we discussed ovarian and uterine cancers. This week, we’re covering cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
Cervical cancer is often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is so common that it infects a vast majority of sexually active adults at some point in their lives. Most of the time, the immune system fights off HPV before it causes any problems for the person who is infected. However, when an infection remains in the body longer, it can begin to trigger precancerous changes to cells, particularly in the cervix. Most of the time, even these precancerous changes will reverse themselves without medical intervention, and when they don’t, highly effective treatments are available to prevent cancer from developing.
However, if precancerous changes to cervical cells continue unchecked, cervical cancer can begin to grow. The HPV vaccine now makes it possible to prevent HPV infections in the first place. As a result, the National Cancer Institute and other medical organizations recommend HPV vaccination for adolescents and young adults in addition to regular Pap tests to detect cervical changes for women 21 through 65.
Despite the preventability of cervical cancer, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 13,000 diagnoses in the U.S. this year.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
The human papilloma virus represents the single highest risk factor for cervical cancer. Prolonged use of oral contraceptives has also found to increase risk, with risk increasing over time; however, this increased risk disappears ten years after oral contraceptives are stopped. If you use or are considering oral contraceptives, be sure to discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. Other risk factors include tobacco smoking, HIV or other immune impairment, and obesity. Some studies also suggest that a personal history of chlamydia results in increased risk.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
In its early stages, cervical cancer may not produce noticeable symptoms. As it progresses, it can cause abnormal vaginal bleeding or other unusual discharge, heavier or prolonged periods, or pain or bleeding associated with intercourse.
Cervical Cancer Screening
The Pap test is recommended for women between the ages of 21 and 65 to screen for precancerous cervical changes and cervical cancer. An HPV test screens specifically for the human papilloma virus. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate tests and screening regimen for your age and lifestyle.
Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers
Combined, vaginal and vulvar cancers represent only 6–7% of gynecologic cancers diagnosed in the U.S., affecting approximately 6,200 women annually. Although this type of cancer is rare, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms so if it does develop, it can be caught and treated early.
Vaginal and Vulvar Cancer Risk Factors
A personal history of cervical cancer or abnormal Pap tests is associated with an increased risk of vaginal and vulvar cancers. Tobacco smoking and immune system suppression (such as HIV infection or use of immunosuppressant drugs) also exacerbate risk. Vaginal cancer risk is higher in women over 50, and vulvar cancer risk is higher in women who experience ongoing vulvar itching and burning.
Symptoms of Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers
Vaginal cancer symptoms include blood in the urine or stool, increased urinary frequency or urgency, and unusual vaginal bleeding or other discharge. Vulvar cancer, on the other hand, may be indicated by more external signs: chronic itching, burning, pain, or sensitivity in the vulva; a red or white discoloration of the skin; a lump that may be red, pink, white, brown, or black; or an open sore or rash. Unusual discharge can also accompany vulvar cancer.
Testing for Vaginal or Vulvar Cancer
If your doctor suspects one of these cancers may be causing your symptoms, the first step will be to evaluate your condition with a physical exam. Depending on what your doctor observes, a biopsy may be ordered to either confirm or rule out the presence of cancer.
Iowa Radiology offers state-of-the-art women’s imaging, including transvaginal ultrasound, sonohysterography, and hysterosalpingography as well as MRI and CT scans. We always strive to provide exceptional patient care and make everyone who comes to our clinics as comfortable as possible. If you ever have a question or concern about a procedure with us, please contact us.
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