September signals the beginning of fall, marked by green leaves changing to warm reds, yellows and oranges. For many women and those of us in the gynecologic oncology world, September is also represented by the color teal in honor of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month. The teal ribbon is a sign of hope and to honor those who have been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer. Approximately 94,000 women a year are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, or a cancer of the female reproductive tract. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of gynecologic cancers are very non-specific and therefore hard to diagnose. By spreading awareness of these cancers, we hope to achieve early diagnosis and treatment leading to an increase in survival rates.
What are gynecological cancers? Gynecologic cancers arise from the female reproductive tract and can usually be categorized into five different types; endometrial, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulvar. Most commonly seen is endometrial cancer and fortunately, it also has the highest survival rate. Whereas approximately 3% of the female population could be diagnosed with endometrial cancer within their lives, about 90% of those women will be cancer-free five years later. Ovarian cancer is the second most common gynecologic cancer, however, it is not as frequently detected while in its early stages and therefore the 5-year survival rate is lower at approximately 80%.
What are the symptoms of a gynecologic cancer? In most gynecologic cancers, abnormal bleeding will be the first indication that there may be a problem. In endometrial cancers, 70-90% of women have abnormal vaginal bleeding. In ovarian cancer, there may be changes in bowel or bladder function, gas, bloating or abdominal distention, abdominal pain, changes in appetite, nausea, vomiting or shortness of breath. Cervical or vaginal cancers may be diagnosed with an abnormal pap smear, or unusual bleeding or discharge. Vulvar cancer may present as a nodule or a lesion on the external genitalia.
How can you be screened for a gynecological cancer? Unfortunately, there aren’t many screening tests for these cancers. A pap smear is a relatively reliable screening for cervical cancer, however, it will only detect approximately 50% of endometrial cancers. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that most women get pap smears every 2-3 years. It is important to talk to your primary care provider or OB/GYN if you have any symptoms that you are concerned about so a more thorough physical exam and diagnostic testing can be done.
How are GYN cancers treated? Depending on the type of cancer, any combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation may be recommended. Patients are usually under the care of a gynecologic oncologist, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist. At Halifax Health – Center for Oncology, we take pride in providing patients with comprehensive care, all within our Charles L. and Miki N. Grant Cancer Center for Hope. There is a whole realm of care and compassion that needs to be given to a patient with a cancer diagnosis and our staff including navigators, dieticians, social workers, financial counselors, providers and nurses make each patient a priority.
For women with personal experience with a gynecologic cancer, families and friends of survivors, and healthcare workers in cancer centers around the world, teal represents hope and awareness. September is a reminder to have your screenings done and to seek medical advice if you have symptoms of a gynecologic cancer. Treat Early And Live.
Sierra Williams-Barnhart, APRN