Breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system
45 % of all cancers affecting women
Breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system are the most common cancers among women, accounting for about 45 percent of the overall malignancies affecting women in general. However, prevention is always the best cure as there are some types of cancer that develop slowly without any noticeable symptoms until after the disease has spread. Breast cancer, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer are the most common female cancers.
Women may experience some symptoms, which indicate a health problem or a disease; in this case the woman should go immediately to the gynecologist to undergo the necessary medical procedures for an early detection, which would reduce the aggravation of the disease. Ignoring any unfamiliar sign or symptom contributes to the failure of the medical treatment.
The most common symptoms of a health problem or cancer of the reproductive system are abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, also called intermenstrual bleeding or spotting. When bleeding occurs between normal periods, there are many possible causes. While some causes may be easy to treat, others can indicate a serious underlying condition. Whether you notice spotting or heavier bleeding between periods, it’s important to see your doctor for testing, diagnosis, and treatment options. The woman may also experience painful bloating or unexplained weight loss with decreased appetite.
Breast health is a very important issue today because early detection is the only means to avoid disease progression and have complete recovery. Women need to be familiar with their own breasts so that they can recognize any changes. If a woman visits her doctor because of unusual breast changes such as a lump, pain, nipple thickening or discharge, or changes in breast size or shape, or has a suspicious screening mammogram, the doctor often asks her to have a diagnostic mammogram: an x-ray of the breast to help assess her symptoms. A diagnostic mammogram is a basic medical tool, and it is appropriate for women of any age.
The presence of one of these symptoms may indicate cancer in the reproductive system, but this is not necessary, because women are susceptible to infections, yeast infections and many health problems in the vaginal area. But medical intervention is needed to quickly identify and treat the problem because neglecting any health issue will have serious consequences and the problem will be complicated and harder to treat.
Breast cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in breast tissue change and keep reproducing. These abnormal cells usually cluster together to form a tumor. A tumor is cancerous (or malignant) when these abnormal cells invade other parts of the breast or when they spread (or metastasize) to other areas of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, a network of vessels and nodes in the body that plays a role in fighting infection.
Breast cancer usually starts in the milk-producing glands of the breast (called lobules) or the tube-shaped ducts that carry milk from the lobules to the nipple. Less often, cancer begins in the fatty and fibrous connective tissue of the breast. Researchers have identified hormonal, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer.
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include a breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue, change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast, changes to the skin over the breast, etc. With breast cancer, early detection is key. The earlier the disease is diagnosed the less it has progressed, and the better the outcome with treatment. A screening mammogram can identify the presence of cancer, often before symptoms arise. Women at high risk for breast cancer may also be screened with other imaging tests, like a breast MRI. It is helpful to know what your breasts normally look and feel like so that you can report any changes to your doctor. It is recommended to know what’s normal for your own breasts and paying attention to any changes you may feel.
Your doctor determines your breast cancer treatment options based on your type of breast cancer, its stage and grade, size, and whether the cancer cells are sensitive to hormones. Your doctor also considers your overall health and your own preferences. Most women undergo surgery for breast cancer and also receive additional treatment before or after surgery, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy or radiation. You may choose to have breast reconstruction after surgery. Discuss your options and preferences with your surgeon. Your options may include reconstruction with a breast implant (silicone or water) or reconstruction using your own tissue. These operations can be performed at the time of your mastectomy or at a later date.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can often be successfully treated when it’s found early. It is usually found at a very early stage through a Pap test.
When exposed to HPV, a woman’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small group of women, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cells on the surface of the cervix to become cancer cells. You can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer by having screening tests and receiving a vaccine that protects against HPV infection. Abnormal cervical cell changes rarely cause symptoms. But you may have symptoms if those cell changes grow into cervical cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Bleeding from the vagina that is not normal, such as bleeding between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause.
- Pain in the lower belly or pelvis.
- Pain during sex.
- Vaginal discharge that isn’t normal.
Treatment for cervical cancer depends on several factors, such as the stage of the cancer, other health problems you may have and your preferences. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three may be used. Early-stage cervical cancer is typically treated with surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy). A hysterectomy can cure early-stage cervical cancer and prevent recurrence. But removing the uterus makes it impossible to become pregnant.
Chemotherapy uses medications, usually injected into a vein, to kill cancer cells. Low doses of chemotherapy are often combined with radiation therapy, since chemotherapy may enhance the effects of the radiation. Higher doses of chemotherapy are used to control advanced cervical cancer that may not be curable. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays or protons, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used alone or with chemotherapy before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Endometrial cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the uterus. Endometrial cancer begins in the layer of cells that form the lining (endometrium) of the uterus. It is often detected at an early stage because it frequently produces abnormal vaginal bleeding, which prompts women to see their doctors. If endometrial cancer is discovered early, removing the uterus surgically often cures endometrial cancer. A disease or condition that increases the amount of estrogen, but not the level of progesterone, in your body can increase your risk of endometrial cancer. Examples include irregular ovulation patterns, such as those that can occur in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, obesity and diabetes. Taking hormones after menopause that contain estrogen but not progesterone increases the risk of endometrial cancer. Obesity increases the risk of endometrial cancer, so work to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. If you need to lose weight, increase your physical activity and reduce the number of calories you eat each day.
Signs and symptoms of endometrial cancer may include vaginal bleeding after menopause, bleeding between periods, an abnormal, watery or blood-tinged discharge from your vagina and pelvic pain. Factors that increase the risk of endometrial cancer include changes in the balance of female hormones in the body, more years of menstruation, never having been pregnant, older age, obesity etc. Women with breast cancer who take the hormone therapy drug tamoxifen have an increased risk of developing endometrial cancer. If you’re taking tamoxifen, discuss this risk with your doctor. For most women, the benefits of tamoxifen outweigh the small risk of endometrial cancer.
It’s not clear what causes ovarian cancer, though doctors have identified factors that can increase the risk of the disease that includes older age, inherited gene mutations, family history of ovarian cancer, estrogen hormone replacement therapy, especially with long-term use and in large doses and age when menstruation started and ended; beginning menstruation at an early age or starting menopause at a later age, or both, may increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. Advanced-stage ovarian cancer may cause few and nonspecific symptoms that are often mistaken for more common benign conditions.
Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Quickly feeling full when eating
- Weight loss
- Discomfort in the pelvic area
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
- A frequent need to urinate
Treatment of ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Operations to remove ovarian cancer include surgery to remove one ovary, surgery to remove both ovaries, surgery to remove both ovaries and the uterus and surgery for advanced cancer, in which your doctor may recommend chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Chemotherapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. It can also be used before surgery.