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Gynecologic oncology offers women expert care when they need it most

Gynecologic cancer
It’s important for women diagnosed with a reproductive cancer to see a gynecologic oncologist.

It’s important for women to be seen annually by a gynecologist who is trained to screen, spot and treat conditions of the female reproductive system. An annual gynecologic examination usually involves a Pap test to check for precancerous cells, screening for infections and discussions about birth control. Similarly, if a woman is diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, or has early symptoms of disease, it’s important to see a gynecologic oncologist, who is specially trained to diagnose and treat female reproductive cancers, including cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

“Gynecologic oncologists provide a level of expertise that’s different from other oncologists, who may treat a variety of cancers like breast, colon, pancreatic, liver and others,” says Justin Chura, MD, Chief of Surgery and Director of Gynecologic Oncology and Robotic Surgery at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Philadelphia. “The only cancers gynecologic oncologists treat are gynecologic cancers. That narrow focus is beneficial.”

In fact, research suggests that women with gynecologic cancers who are treated by a gynecologic oncologist may have better outcomes than those who are not. “Any woman with a known or suspected gynecologic cancer should be seen by a gynecologic oncologist from the start, if possible,” Dr. Chura says. “With cancer, you don’t often get a second chance, so you want a comprehensive treatment plan from the beginning.”

Unique skills

Gynecologic cancers are complex, and treatment often involves multiple approaches, such as surgery and chemotherapy. A gynecologic oncologist is that one doctor who may be able to manage all or most of your treatment. They are trained to perform surgery, including staging surgery and debulking surgery to find and remove tumors that have spread in the pelvic and abdominal areas. Following surgery, a gynecologic oncologist may administer chemotherapy or targeted therapy, if needed. “Because a gynecologic oncologist can perform surgery and administer chemotherapy, it allows for continuity of care,” Dr. Chura says. “We can develop a long-term relationship with the patient. Most doctors either do surgery or provide chemotherapy. We do both.”

Impacts on fertility

Many gynecologic cancer patients are concerned about how treatment will affect sexual function, and younger patients often have concerns about fertility. A gynecologic oncologist understands the impact of cancer and its treatment on a woman’s life, including future childbearing, sexuality, physical and emotional well-being, and family dynamics. They can work with the rest of your cancer team to address your needs throughout treatment.

“For any cancer patient, it’s beneficial to find an integrated model where doctors are treating the whole patient, not just the disease,” says Dr. Chura. “With so many cancers, body image issues, sexual function issues, menopause symptoms, and even emotional distress can all impact a patient’s quality of life. Women should have a team that can address these concerns, with an understanding of the whole patient.”

Common symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

Many women may be unaware of the symptoms of gynecologic cancer, especially symptoms that are unrelated to the reproductive organs. As with most cancers, the earlier gynecologic cancers are found and treated, the better. Here are some common gynecologic cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Pelvic pain or pressure
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating
  • Changes in bathroom habits (increased urination, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Itching or burning of the vulva
  • Changes in vulva color or skin (rash, sores, warts, ulcers)

Learn two key steps to help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.