What you need to know about gynecologic cancer

Each year, nearly 89,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with a type of gynecologic cancer, also known as reproductive cancer.

All women are at risk for developing gynecologic cancers, and risk increases with age. These cancers occur in a woman’s reproductive organs, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus (particularly the endometrial lining), vagina and vulva.

Detecting gynecologic cancers early is important because it provides the best array of options for successful treatment.

Here are some important ways to be proactive about your health to help prevent and detect gynecologic cancers quickly:

Pay attention to your body. Know what is normal for you in terms of digestion, frequency of urination, constipation/bloating, discharges, body aches and pains. If a change occurs and lasts for more than two weeks, report it to your doctor promptly for further investigation.

Keeping a health journal can help you create a baseline for what’s normal and track changes in your body.

Know your family history. Be proactive in discussing health in your family. You should be able to tell your doctor if your mom, aunts, great aunts or grandmothers (on both sides of your family) had reproductive cancers and at what age they were diagnosed.

These facts can provide your doctor with information about what types of testing you may need and how frequently. In some cases, patients are referred to a genetic counselor based on family history for genetic testing to determine if they have a mutated gene associated with ovarian cancer.

Make healthy lifestyle choices. In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, exercise regularly, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t smoke.

Get the HPV vaccination. Some strains of HPV (human papillomavirus) can cause cervical cancer. Be sure to get the HPV vaccine if you fall within the recommended age groups as this vaccination reduces your risk for cervical cancer. For more tips on preventing HPV, talk with your primary care doctor.

Get regular PAP and HPV tests. Based on your family history and past test results, your doctor will determine how frequently you receive these screenings. The PAP test is used to detect cervical cancer, and the HPV test can determine if you’ve been exposed to the HPV virus.

After completing a four-year residency in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, a gynecologic oncologist goes for an additional three to four years of intensive fellowship training.

Research shows that patients with gynecologic cancers treated by a gynecologic oncologist have better outcomes, so if you are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist.

Gynecologic oncologists collaborate closely with your medical care team to develop the best course of treatment, which may include complex surgical procedures as part of a customized treatment program carried out by medical oncologists and radiation therapists.

Now more than ever, there are a variety of excellent options for the prevention, detection and treatment of all types of gynecologic cancers, but the most important steps are up to you — stay on top of regular wellness visits and screening tests, pay close attention to any sudden or subtle changes in your body, and if you receive a diagnosis of reproductive cancer, seek prompt treatment from a gynecologic oncologist.

Comerci is a gynecologic oncologist with UPMC Susquehanna and an associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is board certified in gynecology, obstetrics, and gynecologic oncology with clinical emphasis in OB/GYN and surgical oncology. For more information on reproductive cancers or gynecologic oncology, call 570-321-3300.