Awareness among women about Gynecological cancers regarding the symptoms, causes and the screening tests is essential.
Gynaecologic cancers are any cancers that start in a woman’s reproductive organs. Every 6 minutes, a woman is diagnosed with gynecologic cancer and out of the five types of cancer prevalent in women, cervix uteri are found to be the common type. Gynecologic cancers are often detected through a general screening procedure by an oncologist or Gynaecologist. If diagnosed and treated, the majority of early-stage and a significant number of stage 2 and 3 cancer can get cured. For the advanced stage of cancer, palliative chemotherapy and targeted therapy can significantly improve quality of life and survival.
Diagnosis is key to precise care and management. With recent advancements in science and technology, healthcare delivery of cancer has also evolved over time, and there are screening measures in place for cancer diagnosis.
Ovarian cancer typically affects women above 45 years of age, and few of the reasons include Hereditary; family history of ovarian cancer, presence of BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes associated with ovarian cancer and unhealthy lifestyle leading to obesity. This type of cancer showcases vague symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, Increased frequency or urgency of urination, fatigue, constipation, irregular menstrual cycle.
Most often, the reason for this form of cancer is early or a delayed menstrual cycle, medicines such as Hormone Replacement and Obesity. Symptoms include unusual vaginal spotting or bleeding, pelvic pain or vaginal discharge or heavy white discharge.
Cervical cancer develops in a woman’s cervix (lower part of the uterus). It usually occurs due to DNA changes in the lower part of the uterus. The incidence of cervical cancer is related to the prevalence of HPV in the population. Other risk factors are a history of smoking, parity, oral contraceptive use, early age of coitus large number of sexual partners and Immunosuppression. Common symptoms are irregular menstrual cycle, bleeding after having sex, vaginal or heavy white discharge and frequent pain in the lower abdomen, waist and back.
As per GLOBOCAN 2018 data, this type is the second most common cancer among Indian women. Cervical cancer can be detected through regular screening during health check-ups.
Gynecologic cancers are treated in several ways, mainly depending on the kind of cancer and how far it has spread. For instance, ovarian cancer can be treated by an operation which is known as ‘staging laparotomy’ or ‘debulking’ along with ‘Chemotherapy’ before or after the operation. Uterine cancer can be treated by Hysterectomy (an operation to remove the uterus) and Radiation therapy even after surgery if the cancerous cells are still present in the body. Cervical cancer can be treated by operation or surgery at the earliest stage and ‘Radiation therapy’ and ‘chemotherapy’ for the advanced stage.
Common treatment terms simplified:
- Surgery: Removal of cancer tissues in surgeries
- Chemotherapy: Medicines to shrink or kill the virus. The drugs can be pills or injectable medicines given in your veins, or sometimes both.
- Radiation: High-energy rays (similar to x-rays) are used to kill cancer.
Here’s what can be done to reduce risk
Protect yourself from HPV- Some gynaecological cancers are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection. The HPV vaccine reduces the burden of the HPV-related gynecologic cancers such as cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. The vaccine is mostly given to girls around the age of 11 and 12, and can also be given as early as 9.
- Get screened early: Early screening helps in recognizing the disease before there are any symptoms which can lead to effective treatment.
- Recognize warning signs: Recognize the symptoms and talk to your doctor if you believe that you are at an increased risk of gynecologic cancer.
- Make healthy choices: Maintain a healthy diet, and control your weight to reduce obesity. It is also good to set achievable weight loss goals.
- Get genetic testing done: The rising incidence of cancer among women once again signifies the importance of regular screening and going for annual health check-ups, especially if your mother, daughter, sister or any female relatives have had ovarian cancer or breast cancer before the age of 45. Consult with your doctor and opt for genetic testing to assess the risk.
Cancer management during COVID-19
The pandemic has indeed created a delay in healthcare delivery, especially for cancer patients who need to make frequent visits to healthcare facilities. To lower the risk of infection among cancer patients, most cancer centres have adopted online methods of reaching out to the patient and caregiver. However, with ease in government restrictions, cancer patients can now visit the hospitals, diagnostic centres and continue their treatment and undergo screening for cancer. While we are still grappling with the virus, doctors should take maximum precautions to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. This includes a screening of cancer patients and staff to identify any COVID-19 suspect, adopt outpatient consultations for patients who do not need active management, continue to conduct follow up sessions over video/audio call.
Need for awareness to Prevent Gynecologic cancer
All stigma related to gynecologic cancer care and diagnosis needs to be debunked for more women to come forward and get themselves screened. September is recognized as Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month and is a perfect time to encourage women to learn more and be aware of cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, ovaries, and uterus including early detection and prevention. India’s National Cancer Control Program emphasizes the importance of early detection and treatment. Married women can undergo the ‘Screening test’ to get themselves a regular check-up even though they do not have any health problem. This test will help identify any cancer in the initial stage and can be treated easily. ‘Pap Smear’ is the most common test that is conducted in this Screening test. The test looks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix to detect cervical cancer in its early stage.
With inputs from Dr Muzammil Shaikh, Medical Oncologist, P.D Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai
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