Millions of people are diagnosed with gynecologic cancer each year. Gynecologic cancers refer to abnormal cell growths found in the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and vulva. Each type of gynecologic cancer is unique with its own risk factors, signs, symptoms, and treatments. 

If any of the signs and symptoms listed below are new, persistent, or frequent, it is highly recommended that you discuss them with your healthcare provider. 

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer occurs when cells of the cervix become cancerous. The cervix is the narrow, lower portion of the uterus connecting it to the vagina. Fortunately, cervical cancer is one of the few gynecologic cancers with existing preventative and screening tools, meaning that this cancer is largely preventable.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors:

There are several factors that can increase one’s risk of developing cervical cancer, but the most common risk factor is Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infections. HPV refers to a group of related sexually transmitted viruses. While most HPV types are harmless, certain high-risk types can cause warts and several cancers, including cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer. Aside from HPV-dependent cervical cancer, some may also be HPV-independent (i.e. Not caused by HPV infection). Here is an overview of some, but not all risk factors for cervical cancer: 

  • HPV Infection 
  • Smoking 
  • HIV Infections 
  • Chlamydia 
  • Weakened immune system 
  • Early age of first intercourse 
  • Family history of cervical cancer

Cervical Cancer Signs & Symptoms: 

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause, or after intercourse 
  • Vaginal discharge that has an unusual smell or color 
  • Pain in the pelvis 
  • Pain during urination 

Cervical Cancer Screening & Prevention:  

Cervical Cancer Screening is comprised of two tests– a Pap test and an HPV test. In BC, anyone with a cervix can and should get cervical cancer screening every 3 years. Early detection through screening can lead to better outcomes. Pap tests play an integral role in Cervical Cancer Screening. In a pap test, a gynecologist collects a sample of cells of your cervix and examines it for any signs of pre-cancerous or early cancer characteristics. On the other hand, the HPV test looks for viral pieces of high-risk HPV types (those that are more likely to cause cervical cancer) in one’s cervical cells. 

Cervical Cancer Prevention includes the HPV vaccine. The HPV Vaccine, administrable to both men and women, has been proven to be safe and effective in preventing HPV infections from developing into associated cancers. It has been found to reduce rates of cervical cancer by as much as 70% and 80% for anal cancers. Learn more about the HPV vaccine and eligibility in BC here

Since cervical cancers are largely caused by HPV infections, it is very beneficial to have vaccines as a preventative measure for you and your sexual partner(s). Safe sex practices, such as condom use and limiting your number of sexual partners, are also important to reduce your risk of contracting HPV and developing cervical cancer. 

Ovarian Cancer 

Ovarian cancer is the 5th most common cancer among women. The ovaries are two almond-shaped glands found on each side of the uterus that produces regulatory sex hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen, and release eggs. However, some research has found that most ovarian cancers originate from the fallopian tubes. There are three cell types that make up the ovaries: epithelial cells (lining outer surface), germ cells (internal lining), and stromal cells (structural tissue). Each cell type has the potential to develop into cancer. 

Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors:  

  • Family history of ovarian and breast cancer (especially BRCA mutations) 
  • Increased age 
  • Lynch Syndrome 

Ovarian Cancer Signs & Symptoms:  

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding, especially if you are past menopause 
  • Vaginal discharge that has an unusual smell or color 
  • Back pain 
  • Abdominal bloating or swelling 
  • Discomfort in pelvic area  

Ovarian Cancer Screening & Prevention:

There are currently no ovarian cancer screening tests, which may account for the fact that ovarian cancer has the highest mortality rates among gynecologic cancers. Thus, it is incredibly important that you know the signs and symptoms. If you find anything to be abnormal in your body, make sure you consult with your healthcare provider about it so that proper diagnostic measures can be taken. 

Uterine (Endometrial Cancer)

Endometrial cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer in Canada with the incidence and mortality rate being 35.7% and 5.3%, respectively. You may also hear endometrial cancer being referred to as uterine cancer, but they both refer to the development of abnormal cell growths along the lining of the uterus. 

Endometrial Cancer Risk Factors:  

  • Changes in balance of female hormones in the body (May be associated with irregular ovulation, Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), diabetes) 
  • Family history of Lynch Syndrome 

Endometrial Cancer Signs & Symptoms:  

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (after menopause or between periods) 
  • Pelvic pain 

Endometrial Cancer Screening & Prevention: Right now, there are no standard screening tests for endometrial cancer. Once again, knowing the signs and symptoms and communicating any abnormalities with your body to your healthcare provider is the best you can do for early detection and intervention. 

Vaginal & Vulvar Cancer

Vaginal cancer refers to the development of cancerous cells along the vagina– the elastic, muscular canal that connects the uterus to the outer genitalia (i.e., the vulva). Thus, vulvar cancer occurs when cancer cells are found on the vulva. 

Vaginal & Vulvar Cancer Risk Factors:  

  • HPV infection 
  • Weakened immune system 
  • Smoking 

Vaginal & Vulvar Cancer Signs & Symptoms:  

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (after menopause or between periods) 
  • Pelvic pain 
  • Change in bathroom habits 
  • Changes in the vulva (I.e., lumps, sores, or ulcers on the vulva) 

Vaginal & Vulvar Cancer Screening & Prevention:

There are no screening tests for vaginal and vulvar cancer. Thus, it is important to pay attention to your body and consult with your healthcare provider if any of the signs and symptoms mentioned are new, persistent, or painful. 

However, the HPV vaccine has been shown to be effective in the prevention of HPV-dependent vaginal and vulvar cancer.

Importance of Staying Involved 

Being informed of your risk and knowing the signs and symptoms can make a difference. It is always recommended that you consult with your healthcare provider if any of the risk factors or signs and symptoms are apparent to you. It is also important that you follow up with your annual examinations to ensure that your body is in its best health. 

Gynecologic cancers can occur to anyone with gynecologic organs. Things such as age, genetics, family history, HPV, and smoking can significantly increase one’s risk for developing these cancers. Socioeconomic status may also impact one’s ability to access the screening, preventative care, and treatments they need. Thus, gynecologic cancer care also seeks to address these health inequities to ensure that everyone has the right to gynecologic health. 

Researchers at the Gynecologic Cancer Initiative (GCI) have been doing incredible work to reduce the incidence, death, and suffering from gynecologic cancers. Our team brings expertise from multiple domains of medical sciences, ranging from pathology, genetics, psychology, and more, to ensure that gynecologic cancer patients can live their best life. We are extremely proud to have dedicated team members working in diagnostics, health equity, screening, treatment, prevention, and survivorship– all who are committed to improving patients’ and survivors’ lives. 

Be sure to follow us on our social media to learn more about gyne cancers, recent innovations, and how you can show your support! 

Twitter – @GCI_Cluster 

Instagram – @gynecancerinitiative 

Facebook – @Gynecologic Cancer Initiative