Understanding Gynecologic Cancer: A Comprehensive Guide for Indian Patients and Doctors

Gynecologic cancer refers to cancers that start in a woman's reproductive organs. It is a significant health concern globally and 1out of 4 women suffer from Gynecologic cancers.

These cancers include ovarian, cervical, uterine (endometrial), vaginal, and vulvar cancer. Each type of gynecologic cancer has its own set of causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Understanding these aspects is crucial for early detection, effective management, and improved outcomes.

Types of Gynecologic Cancer

Cervical Cancer

In 2020, cervical cancer ranked as the fourth most prevalent cancer among women worldwide, with approximately 604,000 newly diagnosed cases and 342,000 fatalities. It is primarily caused by persistent infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. Regular screening tests such as Pap smears can help detect cervical cancer in its early stages when it is most treatable.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer accounts for a significant proportion of gynecologic cancer deaths in India. It often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen, leading to a poor prognosis. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include older age, a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, and certain genetic mutations. Symptoms may include abdominal bloating, pelvic pain, and changes in bowel habits.

Uterine (Endometrial) Cancer

Uterine cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer in developed countries, and its incidence is rising in India as well. It typically affects postmenopausal women, although it can occur at any age. Risk factors include obesity, hormonal imbalances, and a history of endometrial hyperplasia. Abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and pain during intercourse are common symptoms.

Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is relatively rare, accounting for less than 2% of all gynecologic cancers. It is often linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and may also be associated with a history of cervical cancer or exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero. Symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, and a lump or mass in the vagina.

Vulvar Cancer

Vulvar cancer affects the outer surface of the female genitalia (vulva) and is most commonly diagnosed in older women. Risk factors include smoking, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, and chronic inflammatory skin conditions. Symptoms may include itching, pain, or tenderness in the vulvar area, as well as changes in the skin color or texture.

Causes of Gynecologic Cancer

The exact causes of gynecologic cancer are not always clear, but certain factors may increase a woman's risk of developing these cancers. These include:

HPV infection

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that can increase the risk of cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer.

Genetic factors

Inherited genetic mutations, such as mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, can increase the risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

Hormonal factors

Hormonal imbalances, such as those associated with obesity or hormone replacement therapy, may increase the risk of uterine cancer.

Environmental factors

Exposure to certain chemicals, such as those found in cigarette smoke or industrial pollutants, may increase the risk of gynecologic cancer.

Treatment of Gynecologic Cancer

Treatment options for gynecologic cancer depend on the type and stage of the cancer, as well as the woman's overall health and preferences. Treatment may include:

  • Surgery: Surgery is often the primary treatment for gynecologic cancer and may involve removing the tumor and surrounding tissues.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing and dividing.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to target specific molecules involved in cancer growth and progression.

How can women reduce their risk of developing gynecologic cancer?

Women can reduce their risk of developing gynecologic cancer by adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, practicing safe sex to reduce the risk of HPV infection, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption. Additionally, getting vaccinated against HPV and undergoing regular screening tests can help detect gynecologic cancers at an early stage when treatment is most effective.

What screening tests are available for gynecologic cancer, and who should undergo them?

Several screening tests are available for gynecologic cancer, including Pap smears, HPV tests, pelvic exams, transvaginal ultrasound, and biopsies. Women should undergo these tests as per their doctor's recommendations and guidelines, which may vary based on age, risk factors, and personal medical history.

What steps can women take if they have a family history of these cancers?

Genetic factors can play a significant role in the risk of gynecologic cancer. Women with a family history of these cancers, especially ovarian and breast cancer, may have an increased risk due to inherited genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCAGenetic counseling and testing can help assess individual risk and guide decisions about preventive measures such as increased surveillance, risk-reducing surgeries, or targeted therapies.

Enhanced Care for Women At TRI

In India, several support services are available for women diagnosed with gynecologic cancer, including counseling services, support groups, financial assistance programs. These services aim to provide emotional support, practical assistance, and holistic care to women and their families throughout their cancer journey.

Thangam Robotic (TRI) offers advanced robotic-assisted surgery options for women with gynecologic cancer. This technology enables precise and minimally invasive procedures, leading to faster recovery times, reduced complications, and improved outcomes in the prevention and treatment of gynecologic cancer.