Breast cancer detection is literally a hands-on activity for women, which may make it easier to keep top of mind. But reproductive cancers should be on your radar too. For those, you’ll need to partner with the ObGyn or primary care physician you see for annual well-woman exams.
Cancers of the female reproductive system are sometimes called simply “female cancers.” These actually don’t include breast cancer, but are sometimes discussed along with it because risk factors for breast cancer often overlap with those for female reproductive cancers.
Ovarian cancer is the most deadly form of reproductive cancer in women. It often doesn’t cause symptoms unless a large mass develops or the cancer spreads—and there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. It is most common in women over age 50, but can occur younger. Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer are often times grouped together. The most common symptoms are:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area, back or belly
- Unrelieved constipation
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling full very quickly when eating
About 5 to 10% of cases of ovarian cancer are related to BRCA gene mutation which also increases breast cancer risk. Some women with the mutation may consider having their ovaries removed even when there is no cancer present, to eliminate the risk of ovarian cancer (and reduce the risk of breast cancer). Your ObGyn and the genetic counselors with the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health can help you assess your genetic risk and determine the best prevention steps for you.
Pelvic exams can detect enlarged ovaries, a sign for both ovarian cancer and the much more common ovarian cyst. Imaging tests like CT scans and MRI can help determine if the enlargement is due to cancer or a cyst. Some blood tests may be elevated with ovarian cancer. However, these tests are not definitive and may be elevated with many other conditions, particularly in premenopausal women.
Cervical cancer stands alone in the female reproductive cancers as having both a known cause (almost always infection with the human papillomavirus or HPV) and a reliable screening test (the Pap smear, which detects abnormal cells). Getting regular Pap tests and the HPV vaccine can both help prevent cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer represents 0.8% of all new cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Early stages usually don’t produce symptoms. When they occur, symptoms may include:
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse or between periods
- Menstrual bleeding heavier than usual
- Pelvic pain
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
Pap tests detect up to 90% of cervical cancers. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provides the following guidelines for when women should have Pap tests:
|21-29||Pap test every 3 years|
|30-64||Pap test and HPV test together every 5 years OR Pap test alone every 3 years|
|65+||Talk to your doctor about whether you can stop having pap tests|
There are two types of uterine cancer. Endometrial cancer is the more common of the two, occurring in the lining of the uterus. Uterine sarcomas are rare, occurring in the muscles and supportive tissue of the uterus. Like other reproductive cancers, uterine cancer often does not have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they may include:
- Vaginal bleeding or discharge that is not normal
- Pelvic area pain or pressure
There is no screening test for uterine cancer, which is why it is so important to bring any symptoms to the attention of your ObGyn or primary care physician. Regular exams can help your doctor detect uterine cancer early, even if there are no symptoms.
Other Reproductive System Cancers
There are other, less common types of reproductive cancers, including:
- Vaginal cancer — may be caused by the HPV virus. The most common symptom is bleeding during or after intercourse (with or without pain).
- Vulvar cancer — may appear as a lump, itchy area or sore that won’t heal on the area around the opening of the vagina (vulva).
- Fallopian tube cancer — usually begins in another area of the body and spreads to the fallopian tubes, which lead from the ovaries to the uterus.
- Molar pregnancy — growth of an abnormal fertilized egg or overgrowth of placental tissue. Can make a woman appear to be pregnant, but the uterus enlarges much faster. Nausea, vomiting and vaginal bleeding are symptoms. Molar pregnancies are rare and only about 20% of them are cancerous.
Breast cancer is sometimes discussed as a reproductive system cancer even though it technically is not. Learn more about your cancer risk with this online Breast Cancer Risk Assessment.
Cancer Prevention Resources
Whether you’re concerned about female cancers or any other health issue, remember you are not alone. HCA Midwest Health offers a variety of resources to help, from our online Physician Finder to Nurses On Call, a free 24/7 service that puts you on the phone with a registered nurse by calling 877-769-6636.