On Gynecological Awareness Month

Every year over a million women worldwide are diagnosed with a gynecological cancer. September is Worldwide Gynecological Awareness Month, which incorporates the awareness of the following five major cancers: cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar.

Women in all parts of the world are at risk of gynecological cancers, but this risk is exacerbated in areas of the world where access to prevention and treatment is low. Over 80% of cervical cancer cases occur in the developing world, and lack of regular pap smears and other interventional measures may contribute to this statistic. This series will explore these types of Gynecological cancers, compare western treatments to those in the developing world, as well as highlight resources for women. An interview with Dr. George Sawaya, Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California San Francisco will also be included.

Ovarian Cancer
The ovaries are the organ that release an egg so that a woman can get pregnant. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than other gynecological cancer. Older women are at highest risk of developing ovarian cancer. The causes of Ovarian cancer are not clear cut. Symptoms are not always easily discernible and are generally defined by bloating or pelvic and abdominal pain. Digestive symptoms can sometimes be felt as well as appetite and nausea problems. Vaginal bleeding, excessive hair growth, and increased urinary frequency can also be symptoms.

If diagnosed early and treatment is received, rate is very high. The most common treatment is removal of the uterus through hysterectomy or removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes.

Endometrial Cancer
This cancer is most common in post menopausal women and is associated with changes in the endometrium lining of the uterus. When women have their periods, the uterus sheds the built up lining when an egg has not been fertilized. It is the lining of the uterus that this cancer affects. Like Ovarian cancer, the causes of Endometrial cancer are not clear cut.

Symptoms include abnormal bleeding from the uterus. In women who have not had menopause this can include, excessive or heavy bleeding between normal periods. Post menopause symptoms can include vaginal bleeding that are long or heavy and white or clear discharge after menopause. Endomestrial cancer is most prevalent in North America, Europe, and other Westernized countries.
Copyright: US National Library of Medicine.

Cervical Cancer

This is the third most common type of cancer in women worldwide. This cancer starts in the cervix, a structure that is at the top of the vagina and the lower part of the uterus. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted virus HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). Some strains of HPV also cause genital warts but these are not cancerous. Often these viruses travel in packs so women may contract both the cancer strains and the genital strains.

The early stages of cervical cancer often have no symptoms. Those that do occur are similar to that of ovarian and endometrial cancers such as vaginal bleeding between periods, after intercourse or between periods, heavy periods or bleeding from the vagina, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

Treatment and prevention of cervical cancer is well researched and easy to administer in countries that have the resources. Before cervical cancer develops changes can be seen on the cervix (dysplasia) and these can be spotted using a pap smear. A pap smear simply involves a health professional removing come cells using a swab or cotton bud from your cervix and putting them on a slide. Regular tests can show any precancerous changes in the cells and treatment is available to delay or prevent the onset of cancer. The recent introduction of vaccines against HPV will lower the risk cervical cancer.

In many countries regular Pap smears and the vaccine are not readily available, the same goes for treatment of dysplasia. However researchers are working around the globe to deliver more effective and affordable means to women around the globe.

Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers
These are rare and symptoms are usually skin related and can include, itching, change in skin color of the vulvar, bumps or wart-like structures growing, burning, or bleeding not related to the menstrual cycle. It is thought that HIV and HPV transmission increases your risk of developing vaginal and vulvar cancers.

If women have concerns about gynecological changes and cancer they should seek attention from a health professional. In areas where access to Health Professionals is difficult, women are encouraged to seek advice from the nearest low cost clinic.