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Cancer is a general term for the abnormal growth of cells in the body. There are millions of cells in the body, and each cell contains DNA (the genetic blueprint for life). DNA provides millions of messages to the genes, which tell the body how to grow, function and behave. Sometimes there is a mistake in one of the messages, called a mutation. Cancer results when a gene sends the wrong message to a cell and the cell multiplies repeatedly. As the cancer cells grow it may be felt in the form of a solid mass or bump or lump. The words tumor, mass, nodule, or lump are all used to refer to a collection of cells. A mass can be benign (no cancer) or malignant (cancer) but only a biopsy or sampling of the cells can determine a cancer diagnosis.
Gynecologic cancers involve areas of the reproductive organs, including the:
Each year, over 80,000 women in the United States learn they have a gynecologic cancer. Although these cancers are often grouped together, they vary widely in their causes, risk factors, detection, treatment and chance of a cure.
- Breast cancer. One out of eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. Fortunately, death rates from breast cancer have declined recently as a result of improved education and scientific advances that have led to earlier detection and more effective treatments.
- Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death for women worldwide. In the United States, approximately 4,000 women die each year from cervical cancer, but worldwide, cervical cancer claims more than 190,000 lives annually. With the use of the Pap smear, cervical cancer can be detected early and is highly curable. A vaccine against 4 common strands of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) has been approved for girls age 9-26. HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer
- Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths among women and is responsible for more deaths than the other gynecologic cancers combined. Ovarian cancer is often referred to as the "cancer that whispers" because its symptoms are vague, and a diagnosis is often not made until the cancer is advanced. There is currently no effective screening test available for the early detection of ovarian cancer.
- Gestational trophoblastic disease represents a spectrum of diseases characterized by the abnormal growth of trophoblastic tissue. Trophoblasts are special cells that develop from a fertilized egg at conception, and develop into the placental tissues. GTD has many types, including hydatidiform molar pregnancy, invasive molar disease, and choriocarcinoma.
In addition to cancer of the ovary, women can be diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer or primary peritoneal cancer (lining of the abdomen). These are separate diagnoses, but are diagnosed and treated like epithelial ovarian cancer. Fallopian tube carcinoma and primary peritoneal cancer are often grouped under ovarian cancer in information brochures.
- Uterine cancer is the most common gynecologic cancer in the United States, diagnosed in approximately 40,000 women each year. It often presents with early symptoms of abnormal vaginal bleeding and therefore diagnosed in it's early and curable stage. However, death rates from uterine cancer have been on the rise and have more than doubled over the last five years.
- Vagina and vulvar cancer is relatively rare, accounting for approximately four percent of all gynecologic cancers. Vulvar cancer is highly curable if detected early, but the only standard screening for the disease is a pelvic exam.
Less common gynecologic cancers include gestational trophoblastic disease, vaginal cancer, ovarian low malignant potential tumors, and non-epithelial ovarian cancers such as germ cell tumors, in which the cancer forms in the egg cell of the ovary.
Although these cancers are often grouped together, they vary widely in their causes, risk factors, detection, treatment and chance of a cure. Women with any of these symptoms should see their doctor as soon as possible:
- A change in bowel or bladder habits
- A sore that does not heal
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
- A thickening or lump that causes pain or can be seen or felt
- Indigestion that does not go away
- Pain in the pelvic area