Women's Health

A Guide to Gynaecological Cancers

What exactly are gynaecological cancers? What are their symptoms, and who is at risk? Dr Timothy Lim, Senior Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist of Timothy Lim Clinic for Women & Cancer Surgery, explains why there is both cause for concern and reason to hope.

Gynaecological cancers describe cancers that originate in a woman’s reproductive organs. The three most common types are cancers of the cervix, uterus and ovaries. Breast cancer is not considered a gynaecological cancer. Cancers of the vagina, vulva and fallopian tubes are relatively rare types of gynaecological cancers.

Most cases of cancer of the cervix, or cervical cancer, are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is sexually transmitted but can be spread through any skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.

Symptoms: Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as postcoital bleeding, is a common symptom of cervical cancer.

Treatment: Treatment consists of surgery alone, or surgery combined with radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Risk factors: Women who have contracted HPV are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Smoking and other factors are also thought to elevate the risk.

Cervical cancer is highly preventable, thanks to the readily available and effective vaccine (HPV vaccine). There are also effective screening tools such as the Pap smear and HPV primary screening.

Cancer of the uterus, or uterine cancer, usually begins in the uterine lining (endometrium) but can also start in the muscle of the uterus. The majority of women affected by uterine cancer are aged above 40 years old, and diagnosis is typically based on an endometrial biopsy.

Symptoms: Abnormal uterine bleeding, such as post-menopausal bleeding or abnormal menses, is a common symptom of uterine cancer.

Treatment: Usually surgery is performed first. Postoperative treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy is dependent on the stage of the cancer.

Risk factors: Age, obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, a strong family history of uterine, colon and ovarian cancer, and genetic carriers of nonpolyposis colon cancer (Lynch syndrome) can increase a woman’s risk of developing uterine cancer.

Since 60 percent of women with uterine cancer are diagnosed at early stages, the chance of a cure with surgery alone is high. Maintaining a healthy weight and adopting a healthy lifestyle lower a woman’s risk of developing uterine and many other cancers.

Cancer of the ovaries, or ovarian cancer, is known as a ‘silent killer’ as women are usually diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease. Between 5 and 10 percent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. Unfortunately there are no effective screening methods for ovarian cancer.

Symptoms: The symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually non-specific and may include abdominal bloatedness, difficulty in eating and loss of appetite.

Treatment: Treatment usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy as well as targeted therapy.

Risk factors: Women with BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genetic mutations and those with hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (Lynch Syndrome) are at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women who have a strong family history of ovarian cancer and a history of endometriosis are also at risk.

Women can reduce their risk by having more children and breastfeeding. Certain medications such as the combined oestrogen and progestogen pills can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

This article is taken from our My Alvernia Magazine Issue #45. Click here to read the issue on our website.