Facts About Gynaecologic Cancers
According to the American Cancer Society, 107,470 women in 2017 will be diagnosed with some form of gynaecologic cancer. Gynaecologic cancers include malignancies of the female genital tract involving the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. Although common screening with the Pap test has lead doctors to find pre-cancerous changes in the vagina and, approximately 96,640 cases of uterine, cervical and ovarian cancer will be diagnosed this year.
How Are Gynaecologic Cancers Treated?
Treatment for gynaecologic cancer varies based on the specific type of cancer that is diagnosed, and how far it has spread. Treatments may include surgery (to remove the area affected by cancer), chemotherapy (medicines designed to reduce or kill the cancer), and radiation.
If you have been diagnosed with any gynaecological cancer, it is important to talk to more than one cancer specialist before deciding on a course of treatment. Your team will likely include a gynaecologic oncologist (a doctor specializing in gynaecological cancers), and may also include a medical oncologist (a doctor who treats cancer with chemotherapy) and a radiation oncologist. Your team will work with you to create a treatment plan that will be most effective considering your specific cancer, your lifestyle, and your overall health.
Surgical options for gynecological cancers
Surgery for gynaecological cancer varies widely based on the type of cancer, and its stage of growth. Non-invasive cervical cancer may be treated with Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP), a procedure that uses a thin wire with a low-voltage electrical current to pass through tissues and remove the abnormal areas of the cervix. This surgery is often performed in a doctor’s office and produces few side effects other than mild cramping and spotting.
More advanced cervical cancer, or cancers of the uterus or ovaries, may require a full or partial hysterectomy, oophorectomy, or a combination. A full hysterectomy involves removing the entire uterus and cervix, while a partial hysterectomy refers to removing the uterus while leaving the cervix intact. An oophorectomy is a removal of one or both of the ovaries.
As with any surgery, an oophorectomy or hysterectomy (either full or partial) requires recovery time and carries with it risks for complications and side effects. Most notably, the removal of the ovaries causes an artificial onset of menopause.
Medical options for gynaecological cancers
There are many chemotherapy drugs available to treat gynaecological cancers. Some of these medications are administered intravenously, and others are taken orally, and treatment often lasts weeks or months. Chemotherapy drugs work by poisoning cancer cells, causing them to shrink or die. While poisoning the cancer cells, chemotherapy also poisons healthy cells. This is the reason that chemo is associated with so many unpleasant side effects – nausea, hair loss, and skin changes, to name a few. However, not all chemotherapy drugs cause the same effects in all people. An oncologist will be able to describe the different medications available, their effectiveness, and their side effects.
Radiation options for gynaecological cancers
Radiation uses focused, high-powered rays to kill cancer. There are two basic types of radiation used to treat gynaecological cancers:
External Beam Radiation Therapy
External beam radiation therapy delivers radiation through a machine (similar to an x-ray) from outside your body. These rays are highly targeted to each specific cancer and designed to avoid harming healthy tissue as much as possible. The treatments are usually given several times a week for 5-6 weeks. Some patients experience no side effects, though others may experience fatigue, skin irritation, nausea, and diarrhea. Radiation can cause changes to surrounding tissues as well, so after your treatment you may notice changes in bowel habits, bladder function, as well as vaginal changes.
Internal Radiation Therapy
Internal radiation therapy involves placing a radioactive source directly into the body, inside or near the cancer. It allows a higher dose of radiation in a smaller area than may be possible using external beam radiation therapy, though both forms are often used at the same time to achieve the best result. An implant (sometimes called seeds, pellets, ribbons, wires, needles, capsules, balloons, or tubes) are inserted into the body at or very near the site of the cancer. Certain types of internal radiation therapy require brief hospitalization, while others are outpatient procedures.
Caring for Yourself During Treatment
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment can be difficult and frightening. Seek support from friends, family, support groups, and your oncology team.
Get plenty of rest.
Let your doctor know if you experience a lack of appetite or nausea that makes eating difficult. It is important to get adequate nutrition during treatment and your doctor may be able offer tips or medications that make eating easier.
If you are undergoing radiation, pay special attention to the skin around the radiation site. Clean the skin with mild soap and water only, and avoid using any lotions or ointments until you’ve cleared it with your doctor.
If side effects from treatment appear or worsen, tell your medical team right away.
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