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    5 main types of gynecological cancer: What you should know

    Updated 23 January 2023 |
    Published 06 July 2022
    Fact Checked
    Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky
    Reviewed by Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky, Breast and gynecologic medical oncologist, Valley Health System, New Jersey, US
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    Gynecological cancer describes cancers that start in the cervix, uterus, vulva, vagina, or ovaries. Symptoms and treatment options for each of these cancers can look pretty different. Here, an OB-GYN outlines what you need to know about the different gynecological cancers. 

    Gynecological cancer is the broad term that describes all of the cancers that start in the female reproductive organs. These include the cervix, uterus, vulva, vagina, and ovaries. Depending on where the cancer starts, symptoms can look pretty different.

    “Most cancers in the body do not develop in the same way or along the same timeline. There are no screening tests for ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulva cancer, so it is important to pay attention to your body,” says OB-GYN (obstetrician and gynecologist) Dr. Barbara Levy. “If you are experiencing new symptoms, you should report them to your health care professional.” 

    It’s estimated that there will be around 115,130 new cases of gynecological cancer diagnosed in the US in 2022. Changes to your reproductive health can be scary, but it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Your health care provider is there to answer any questions or concerns you may have. 

    Here, Dr. Levy explains the signs and symptoms associated with the five main types of gynecological cancer and what tests are available for detecting them so you know what to expect.

    Cervical cancer: Signs and diagnosis

    Cervical cancer describes any cancer that starts in the cervix — the thin neck that connects your vagina to your uterus. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, 14,100 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by an infection from certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).

    HPV is the name for more than 100 different types of virus. It’s passed through skin-to-skin genital contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Most people will contract HPV at some point in their lives, but don’t worry — most cases are harmless and clear naturally. 

    Symptoms of cervical cancer can include: 

    • Vaginal bleeding between periods or after sex
    • Pain during sex
    • Pain in your lower back or abdomen
    • Changes in your vaginal discharge

    If you start to notice these symptoms, then don’t panic. They can be linked to a whole range of other conditions (that have nothing to do with cancer), and the best thing to do is reach out to your medical professional to get to the bottom of what’s going on. 

    If you’re 21 years old in the US or 25 in the UK, then it’s likely that you’ll have been invited for your first Pap smear. Cervical cancer is the only gynecological cancer that can be prevented through screenings. “Cervical screenings can find changes in cells that happen years before cancer develops,” says Dr. Levy. “Those changes are easy to treat, and when treated in a timely fashion, they will never progress to cancer.” That’s why it’s so important to make sure you attend these appointments when you’re invited for them.

    During your screening, your health care provider will insert a speculum (a medical device that looks a bit like a duck’s beak) into your vulva. They will then insert a swab to collect some cells from the cervix. The whole process is very quick — usually less than five minutes. 

    It can be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt. If you have any concerns about pain, talk to your medical professional. They may use a smaller instrument or find another alternative for you. Results can take a few weeks to process, and if your test shows any abnormalities, then your medical practitioner may invite you back for a colposcopy.

    During a colposcopy, your health care provider will insert a speculum into your vagina again. They will then look at your cervix and vagina with a microscope with a light on the end. They may take a small sample of cells to be tested in a laboratory. This test should take no longer than 30 minutes. 

    Attending your Pap smear and any follow-up tests is really crucial, but it’s totally normal to feel nervous. There’s no need to be embarrassed. If you have any worries, then speak to your health care provider before the appointment. They will be able to walk you through the procedure and answer any of your questions. 

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