What You Need to Know About GYN Cancers
Nearly 100,000 women are diagnosed with gynecological cancer each year in the U.S. In a Facebook Live discussion in recognition of September’s Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, CIGC Director of Education and Community Outreach Nilofar Kazi joined CIGC co-founder and surgeon Dr. Natalya Danilyants to talk about screening and prevention. They discussed the prevalence of gynecological cancers, common symptoms and what questions women should ask their doctors.
Watch the recorded discussion here
Uterine Cancer: The Fourth Most Common Cancer in American Women
There are five types of gynecological cancer:
- Cervical: cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix (only one with a screening test)
- Vaginal: cancer that occurs in the cells that line the surface of the vagina
- Vulvar: cancer that occurs on the outer surface area of female genitals
- Ovarian: cancer that occurs inside, near or on the outer layer of the ovaries
- Uterine (or Endometrial): cancer that occurs in the layer of cells that form the lining of the uterus
Uterine cancer is the most common type of gynecological cancer, and it’s the fourth most common cancer in American women. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 65,620 new cases of uterine cancer this year, accounting for nearly 4% of all new cancer cases in the United States¹. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with uterine cancer between the ages of 55 and 64, and while white women have a slightly higher incidence rate of this cancer, Black women are 93% more likely to die from uterine cancer than any other racial group².
Remembering Breyan Hunter
Earlier this year, Dr. Danilyants had a young patient, Breyan Hunter, come to CIGC for a myomectomy. She had fibroids, but Dr. Danilyants also found stage 4 uterine cancer during Breyan’s surgery. This month’s Facebook Live event was dedicated to Breyan, and her mother shared the following statement in her honor.
“My daughter, Breyan Hunter, passed away from uterine cancer in July.
Breyan was active and loved the outdoors. She had gone skydiving, white-water rafting and completed a triathlon. She traveled through Africa, China, Croatia and other parts of Europe. Tulips were her favorite flower. As a human resource professional, she was educated and successful. As a daughter and older sister, she was loved ferociously.
Breyan’s passing has prompted conversations about women’s health in my own family, and I am sharing her story in the hope that it starts those conversations in many more families. Breyan knew she had fibroids, but she also felt in her gut that something else was wrong. She brought up her concerns with her doctor multiple times, but she was continuously dismissed. Because she trusted her doctor, she didn’t pursue that gut feeling. If I had known she felt this way, I would have pushed her to trust her instincts.
When performing Breyan’s surgery earlier this year, Dr. Danilyants discovered stage 4 uterine cancer. Breyan was hospitalized and passed away shortly after her surgery.
She lived a life so full in her short 43 years. While it seems unfair that she is no longer here, I take comfort in the fact that she lived her life to the fullest.”
Risk Factors and Characteristics of Uterine Cancer
Certain health conditions or lifestyle factors can increase the risk of developing uterine cancer. These risk factors include:
- Irregular periods
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Family history of uterine or endometrial cancer
Signs of uterine cancer might show up in abnormal discharge, spotting or bleeding, especially after menopause. Other symptoms may include pelvic pain and bleeding between periods.
Screening and Prevention Tactics for GYN Cancers
It’s important to recognize that regular pap smears only detect cervical cancer. Screening tests for any of the other four types of gynecological cancers do not exist. For patients planning to undergo surgery at CIGC but experiencing worrisome symptoms like abnormal discharge, Dr. Danilyants usually recommends doing a biopsy of the uterine lining to rule out any potentially cancerous cells.
“The point of the biopsy is to find out if there is cancer already there in the uterus because that may completely change your treatment,” Dr. Danilyants said. “You would not do a uterine preservation surgery if there was already cancer in the uterus.”
Many patients with gynecological conditions like fibroids often try to manage their symptoms or shrink their fibroids with herbal treatments.
“I try to discourage patients from doing that because I know that it doesn’t work,” Dr. Danilyants said. “For large fibroids, surgery is the only way to remove them.”
Delaying care can not only exacerbate GYN conditions, the delay can also be detrimental if any type of undiagnosed cancer is present. Cancer progresses and it never goes away on its own. Detecting and diagnosing cancer when it’s in an early stage can give both doctors and patients a better chance of beating it.
Listen to Your Inner Voice
Over time, Breyan’s symptoms changed and she began to have abnormal discharge and bleeding. Her doctors continuously told her it was nothing to worry about, but she felt in her gut that something was wrong. Kazi emphasized the importance of trusting your inner voice, especially when it’s telling you something important about your health.
“It’s so important to not let anyone — even a doctor or health care professional — silence that gut feeling,” Kazi said. “No one else can feel what you’re feeling. No one else knows your body more than you do. And no one else hears that whisper that’s telling you something’s wrong. That’s why it’s so important to get a second opinion.”
What You Can Do
- Don’t miss your well woman exams. Pap smears and pelvic exams are excellent ways to detect any obvious signs of cervical cancer.
- Ask for a pelvic ultrasound. These will help your doctor with anything that can’t be seen through a pelvic exam alone.
- Abnormal symptoms? Get a biopsy. It’s impossible to definitively say anything is benign without a biopsy.
- Find a specialist. For cases of GYN cancer, it’s best to find an expert who specializes in treating cases like yours. Remember: most surgical treatments can be done minimally invasively.
- If you feel like you’re not being heard, find a new doctor. You know your body best. Seek a second opinion today.
- Cancer of the Endometrium – Cancer Stat Facts. SEER. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/corp.html. Published 2020.
- The Carolina Endometrial Cancer Study. https://unclineberger.org/cecs/. Published 2020.
Women’s Health Survey
Take the CIGC Women’s Health Survey for a chance to win a $100 gift card. Individuals may only take this survey once. The winner will be selected on Friday, October 9th, 2020.
Last Month’s Live Event: Told Her Health Was Not Essential, She Sought A CIGC Second Opinion
Did you miss our Facebook Live event last month? Former patients, LaNail Plummer joined CIGC Director of Research and Community Outreach Nilofar Kazi to emphasize the importance of not delaying life-changing surgery — even during a global pandemic — and to share her journey to a life free from fibroids. Watch the recording or read the recap on our website.