Cervical and ovarian cancer are two distinct types of cancers that affect women’s reproductive organs. While they originate in different areas, understanding their links, early detection and treatment options is crucial for women’s health.
There are five types of gynecologic cancers.
They are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancer. Of the five gynecological cancers, uterine cancer is the most commonly occurring, cervical cancer is the only one that can be prevented through screening and ovarian cancer is the most fatal. The good news is there are warning signs associated with these cancers that can help you detect them early.
What are the symptoms of cervical and ovarian cancer?
Symptoms of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding after sex, after menopause or between periods. Other symptoms include pelvic pain or pain during sex, periods that are heavier or longer than normal or vaginal discharge that is watery and has a strong odor or contains blood.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include abdominal swelling or bloating (also referred to as feeling full), pelvic pain, frequent urination, fullness or loss of appetite, constipation or other bowel changes. These symptoms may seem commonplace, so it’s vital that you’re aware of other risk factors, such as your family history.
Are cervical cancer and ovarian cancer linked?
Cervical and ovarian cancer are not directly linked, but they both affect the female reproductive system. Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, and is often associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. On the other hand, ovarian cancer starts in the ovaries, which are part of the female reproductive system.
While these cancers have distinct origins, they share certain risk factors.
What risk factors increase the likelihood of developing cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44, with the average age of diagnosis being 50. The highest risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, about 80 percent of sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives but may not even know that they have it.
What risk factors increase the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer?
Two-thirds of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are age 55 or older. Having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer can increase your risk of developing it at a younger age. Ovarian cancer risk also increases with age. It’s rare for a woman to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer younger than 40, with most cases developing after menopause.
However, it’s also important to understand your family history. About 20 to 25 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary connection to the disease. Inherited genetic mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene can contribute to ovarian cancer risk.
“Patients with a family history of ovarian cancer may benefit from genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutation,” Miguel Vega-Gilormini, MD, an OB-GYN at Bon Secours Southside Obstetrics and Gynecology, shares. “If they have the BRCA gene mutation, they may consider prophylactic ovarian removal, which is a procedure that removes the ovaries and fallopian tubes to reduce their risk for cancer.”
Where does ovarian cancer first spread?
Ovarian cancer has a unique pattern of spreading. Unlike many other cancers, ovarian cancer often spreads directly within the abdominal cavity rather than through the bloodstream. The cancer cells can spread to nearby organs such as the fallopian tubes, uterus and bladder. This characteristic spreading pattern emphasizes the importance of early detection to prevent the cancer from progressing to advanced stages.
Early detection methods for ovarian cancer include a pelvic exam, imaging tests and blood tests that measure specific biomarkers associated with ovarian cancer.
Can you prevent cervical cancer?
Yes, you can prevent cervical cancer. Fortunately, the HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
HPV infections and cervical precancers (abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cancer) have dropped since 2006, when HPV vaccines were first used in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination begin at age 9 and before age 26 (ideally before a first sexual encounter). If your teen isn’t vaccinated yet, talk to their doctor about doing so as soon as possible.
The second part of protection against cervical cancer is screening. Regular screening through a Pap test (or Pap smear) can help detect any cervical precancer or cancer early on. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends screening begin for all women at the age of 21.
Can you prevent ovarian cancer?
There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, but certain medical choices may lower your chances of developing it:
- Having a tubal ligation (getting your tubes tied), both ovaries removed or a hysterectomy (an operation in which the uterus, and sometimes the cervix, is removed).
- Multiple pregnancies, or having the first full-term pregnancy before the age of 26, decreases risk.
- Some studies suggest that women who breastfeed for a year or more have a reduced risk of ovarian cancer.
Additionally, new treatment options for ovarian cancer patients are being developed that may improve outcomes.
What is the survival rate for cervical and ovarian cancer?
Survival rates for cervical and ovarian cancer vary based on factors such as the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed, the type of cancer and the individual’s overall health. It’s important to note that early detection significantly improves the chances of successful treatment for both types of cancer.
For cervical cancer, the survival rate is relatively high when detected early. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is around 92 percent. A regular Pap smear and HPV vaccinations contribute to the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer.
In contrast, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at later stages due to its subtle symptoms. The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent, highlighting the need for improved screening methods and awareness.
Should you share your family history with your OB-GYN?
Yes, talk to your doctor, especially if you have persistent symptoms and/or a family history of ovarian, breast, uterine or colon cancer.
Remember to listen to your body. If you’re experiencing unusual pain, bleeding or bloating that persists for more than two weeks, contact your doctor. Your doctor can perform an exam and recommend any additional diagnostic testing that could aid in evaluating the risk of your symptoms.
Understanding the distinctions and connections between cervical and ovarian cancer is crucial for women’s health. By staying informed and proactive, women can take steps to protect themselves and increase their chances of survival in the face of these reproductive cancers.