Learning about Gynecologic Cancers
- Hope Mavridis, 31, thought her dreams of giving birth were over when she was diagnosed with ovarian and endometrial cancer. Thankfully, a doctor performed preserved her fertility while treated her cancers. Now, Mavridis is expecting in November.
- The term gynecologic cancer refers to any cancer of the female reproductive organs.
- Ovarian cancer is called the cancer that whispers because its symptoms can be very vague. People should remain vigilant and aware of any new or unusual symptoms and report to their physicians for appropriate evaluation.
- Uterine cancer includes two types of cancer: endometrial cancer (more common) and uterine sarcoma. There are several signs to watch out for including irregular bleeding as well as lower abdominal pain or cramping in your pelvis, just below your belly, or thin white or clear vaginal discharge if you’re postmenopausal.
Mavridis, 31, found out she had endometrial and ovarian cancer in the summer of 2020. Her diagnosis came after she experienced some unusual bleeding, weight gain and discomfort over the past year that would come and go, until her bleeding didn’t stop in 2020. That’s when an ultrasound revealed that her uterus was filled with tumors and one ovary had grown to the size of a melon.Read More
Mavridis was put on a hormone while she waited for the operation. And just before the surgery, she asked her gynecologist for one more ultrasound to see if anything looked different since she knew a hysterectomy would affect her fertility. Surprisingly enough, the ultrasound came back clear, so Mavridis made a point to call her doctor.
“Hope told me she felt like the Lord was telling her she shouldn’t have her organs removed,” her doctor said of the phone call she received the night before the planned hysterectomy. “She asked if there was any other way we could treat it.”
After expressing how she felt, Mavridis went in for the surgery knowing that her doctor would do whatever she could to preserve her fertility if possible.
“I woke up from surgery and asked, ‘Is it all gone?’” Mavridis said.
Mavridis’ nurse then shared the news that her doctor saved her uterus and her ovary.
“Dr. Davis had the faith to leave it and give me a chance,” Mavridis said. “She saved my life and saved our dream to have a baby.
“She is an angel.”
Now, Mavridis is pregnant and preparing to give birth to her baby in November.
“I literally cried when I heard the news,” her doctor said. “Hope is one of my miracle patients.”
Fertility and Cancer Treatment
Infertility can be a side effect of some cancer treatments, but there are options to consider. Fertility preservation, for example, is available to women of childbearing age. Options for women include:
- Egg and embryo freezing (the most common practice)
- Ovarian tissue freezing
- Ovarian suppression to prevent the eggs from maturing so that they cannot be damaged during treatment.
- Ovarian transposition, for women getting radiation to the pelvis, to move the ovaries out of the line of treatment.
No matter what course of action you choose to take, it is important that all women feel comfortable discussing their options prior to cancer treatment.
In a previous conversation with SurvivorNet, Dr. Jaime Knopman, a reproductive endocrinologist at CCRM NY, says time is precious when dealing with fertility preservation for women with cancer. In other words, the sooner the better when it comes to having these important fertility conversations with your doctor.
“The sooner we start, the sooner that patient can then go on and do their treatment,” Dr. Knopman said. “A lot of the success comes down to how old you are at the time you froze and the quality of the lab in which your eggs or embryos are frozen in.”
What Is Gynecologic Cancer?
Gynecologic cancer is a term that encompasses any cancer of the female reproductive organs including:
- Cervical cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Uterine cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
Risk for gynecologic cancer increases with age. But each of these cancers is unique with different signs and symptoms, risk factors and prevention strategies. To have a better understanding of the type of type of gynecologic cancers Hope Mavridis had, let’s dig into ovarian and uterine cancer.
Ovarian cancer is when the ovaries – which produce the sex hormone, estrogen, as well as eggs – become cancerous. Women have two ovaries, one on either side of the uterus.
The fallopian tube, which brings the egg from the ovary to the uterus for fertilization, is actually where many ovarian cancers begin. First, a few cancerous cells develop on the fallopian tubes, then these cells stick to the ovaries as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary. From there, the cancerous cells grow to form a tumor.
Your risk for ovarian cancer may be increased if you have gone through menopause, have a gene mutation like BRCA1 or BRCA2, are obese or overweight, had your first pregnancy after age 35 or never carried a pregnancy to full-term, have a family history of cancer or used hormone replacement therapy. You should talk with your doctor about your potential risk for the disease.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is known as the cancer that whispers because symptoms are vague and sometimes similar to regular menstrual cycle fluctuations. Dr. Beth Karlan, a gynecologic oncologist with UCLA Health, says that ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognize with its subtle symptoms.
“Ovarian cancer does not have any specific symptoms,” Karlan said in an earlier interview with SurvivorNet. “It’s often referred to as the cancer that whispers in that it has symptoms that are really very vague… and nothing that may bring your attention directly to the ovaries.”
But Dr. Karlan still wants women to keep an eye out for a variety of possible symptoms.
“The symptoms include things like feeling full earlier than you usually would when your appetite is strong… Feeling bloated,” she added. “Some changes in your bowel habits. Some pain in the pelvis. These are symptoms women may have every month. These are not very specific. But what we’ve found from multiple studies, it’s this constellation of symptoms.”
Dr. Stephanie Wethington, director of the gynecologic oncology survivorship program at Johns Hopkins Medicine, previously told SurvivorNet that prevention for ovarian cancer is an important area of focus.
“We must remember that prevention is key and advocate for all women to discuss their family history and individual risk factors with their doctors and ask whether there are risk-reducing options available to them,” Dr. Wethington wrote.
Our advice to readers: See your doctor if you feel like something is off. Given that ovarian cancer can have no symptoms or a myriad of symptoms that you might easily brush off as nothing, it’s important to always seek medical attention when your gut is telling you something might be wrong. That doesn’t mean we should assume the worst every time we feel bloated or have a change in appetite, but it does mean that we should always try to listen to the signs our body is giving us.
What Is Uterine Cancer?
Uterine cancer includes two types of cancer: endometrial cancer (more common) and uterine sarcoma. The uterus, or womb, is a pear-shaped organ where a fetus can develop and grow. More than 90 percent of uterine cancers occur in the endometrium (the layer of tissue that lines the uterus), making them endometrial cancer. Uterine sarcoma, on the other hand, is very rare and develops in the myometrium, the muscle wall of your uterus.
Unlike cervical cancer, uterine cancer is not caused by HPV. But there are also several conditions that may predispose someone to getting uterine cancer including:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (which is marked by the absence of regular periods)
- Hyperandrogenism (elevated male sex hormones)
- Lynch syndrome
“These patients might not be thinking about this, their primary care providers may not be speaking to them about this,” warns Dr. Diana English, a gynecologic oncologist with USF Health.
There are also several signs to watch out for regarding uterine cancer. Irregular bleeding – bleeding in between periods for pre-menopausal women and unexpected bleeding for post-menopausal women – is a very common symptom. Other signs can include lower abdominal pain or cramping in your pelvis, just below your belly, or
thin white or clear vaginal discharge if you’re postmenopausal.
If you develop abnormal bleeding or have any concerns about your body, it is important to direct all questions to your doctor right away. Early cancer detection is hugely beneficial for treatment outcomes, so always remember to advocate for yourself.