Each year, thousands of women in the United States are diagnosed with some form of gynecologic cancer—diseases that people don’t like to talk about and that doctors have a hard time treating. Here’s what you need to know to help them, and yourself.
1. Cervical, ovarian, and uterine are the most common types of gynecologic cancer, followed by vaginal and vulvar.
While only 98,000 women per year are diagnosed with one of these diseases—compared to 230,000 for breast cancer—they are harder to detect and spread more quickly. In fact, only 68 percent of cervical cancer patients and less than half of ovarian cancer patients live longer than five years.
2. Incredibly, embarrassment over talking about “that part” of a woman’s body is still a barrier to taking awareness of gynecologic cancers fully mainstream.
“It often feels like we’re back where breast cancer was a few decades ago, when not everyone felt comfortable talking about breasts,” says Ginger Gardner, M.D., spokesperson for the Foundation for Women’s Cancer. It doesn’t help that a sexually transmitted infection known as human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most types of cervical cancer, as well as many vaginal, vulvar, and anal tumors. But experts say the stigma surrounding HPV is entirely misplaced, since even women who have only had one partner can be infected.
3. There are 150 strains of HPV, a dozen of which can cause cancer.
The HPV vaccine can prevent the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that it be given to girls and boys at age 11 or 12. If you’re under 26, you can ask your doctor for a “catch-up” vaccine.
4. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes aren’t the only concerns when it comes to gynecologic cancer.
“Approximately 24 genes have been associated with a greater chance of developing ovarian cancer alone,” says Joy Larsen Haidle, past president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. That’s why it’s so important to discuss your personal and family history with your doctor. She may suggest genetic testing, which can help you decide whether you need more frequent screenings or even preventive surgery.
5. Cervical cancer is the only one of these types of cancers to have a reliable screening tool.
“Since the Pap smear became standard protocol, the number of invasive cervical cancers we see each year has gone from 100,000 down to 10,000,” says Carmel Cohen, M.D., chair of the Gynecologic Cancer Advisory Group for the American Cancer Society. You should have one at least every three years until age 30, when your gyno can tack on a test for the specific cancer-causing types of HPV. If both your Pap and your HPV test are normal, you can go as long as five years between screenings—but discuss it with your doctor.