Every six minutes, a North American woman is diagnosed with gynecologic cancer. Each type of cancer is named after the organ it originates, including cervical, endometrial, ovarian, peritoneal, tubal, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
The causes and risk factors of gynecologic cancer vary among the different types, but some common risks include:
- HPV infection
- DES exposure (synthetic estrogen given to women before 1971 during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage)
- HIV/AIDS infection
Treatment for gynecologic cancer depends on the type of cancer, stage, and other general health factors. Common methods of treating gynecologic include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
Peritoneal cancer is a rare cancer that develops in the peritoneum, a thin, delicate sheet that lines the inside wall of the abdomen and covers the uterus and extends over the bladder and rectum. The peritoneum is made of epithelial cells. By producing a lubricating fluid, the peritoneum helps the organs to move smoothly inside the abdomen.
Peritoneal cancer looks and behaves like ovarian cancer, but the ovaries are minimally involved. Women who develop ovarian cancer after having had their ovaries previously removed likely have peritoneal cancer.
In its earliest stages, symptoms for peritoneum cancer can be very vague and difficult to spot. Like ovarian cancer, the condition often does not produce any symptoms until late in its development. When symptoms of peritoneum cancer do develop, they are similar to those of ovarian cancer. Symptoms may include:
- General abdominal discomfort and pain, such as gas, indigestion, pressure, swelling, bloating or cramps
- Nausea, diarrhea, constipation and frequent urination
- Feeling full even after a light meal
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain or loss with no known reason
- Abnormal bleeding from the vagina
Vaginal cancer is a rare disease and makes up less than 3 percent of all gynecological cancers. There are four different types of vaginal cancer, including:
- Squamous Cell Cancer: The most common type and usually occurs in the upper part of the vagina. It typically affects women between the ages of 50 and 70.
- Adenocarcinoma: The second most common type and usually affects women between the ages of 12 and 30, although it occassionally occurs in women of all age groups.
- Malignant Melanomas Sarcomas: Extremely rare forms of the disease.
It is important to know that even if you have had a hysterectomy, you can still develop vaginal cancer.
As with many cancers, the exact cause of vaginal cancer is not known for sure. However, some factors may increase a woman’s risk for the disease, including:
- Age, women over the age of 50 are most commonly affected by squamous cell vaginal cancer
- History of cervical cancer
- Having had a hysterectomy
- History of genital warts caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV)
- Having had radiation therapy to the pelvic area
In some cases, vaginal cancer may not cause any symptoms and is only detected by an abnormal Pap smear. However, some common symptoms of the condition include:
- Bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
- Difficult or painful urination
- Pain during intercourse or in the pelvic area
Vulvar cancer forms in the vulva, the area around the external genital organs on a woman. The vulva includes the following parts:
- Labia — The lips around the opening of the vagina
- Clitoris — A small mass of tissue at the opening of the vagina
- Bartholin’s Glands– The small mucus-producing glands on either side of the vaginal opening
In most cases, cancer of the vulva affects the labia. Less often, cancer occurs on the clitoris or in Bartholin’s glands. Over 90 percent of vulvar cancers are considered a type of skin cancer because they begin in the squamous cells, the main cell type of the skin. They usually develop slowly over many years and in their earliest form are not cancerous.
Vulvar cancer is relatively rare, and typically affects Caucasian women over the age of 60, although the condition can occur in younger women and those of all ethnicities. Other risk factors for the condition include:
- Taking steroids or other drugs that weaken the immune system
- Genital warts caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV)
In most cases, vulvar cancer causes early symptoms. Therefore, if you experience any of the symptoms of the condition, you should visit your doctor immediately. Common symptoms of vulvar cancer may include:
- Vulvar itching that lasts more than one month
- A cut or sore on the vulva that won’t heal
- A lump or mass on the vulva
- Unexplained vulvar pain
- Bleeding from the vulva that is different from your usual monthly bleeding
- Burning in the area that lasts even after your doctor has treated the burning
- Any change in size, color or texture of a birthmark or mole in the vulvar area