How To Lower Your Risk of Gynecologic Cancer—or Identify It Early

Date: Mar 15, 2024

Fortunately, modern medical advances have greatly improved survival rates among women with different types of gynecologic cancer. For example, when detected early, uterine cancer is often curable with surgery alone. And thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and cervical cancer screening tests, cervical cancer can be diagnosed early, when it’s easier to treat.

Below, we’ve outlined some steps you can take to understand (and lower) your personal risk of gynecologic cancer. We’ve also highlighted symptoms you should discuss with your doctor right away, because they can be early signs of cancer.

Losing Extra Weight Can Lower Your Risk of Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer (also known as endometrial cancer) is the most common type of gynecologic cancer in the United States. It affects around 60,000 women annually. And the biggest risk factor is something we can control: our weight.  

“Up to 60% of uterine cancers are linked to obesity,” says Susan Modesitt, MD, leader of the gynecologic oncology program at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. “And as the obesity rate in our country continues to grow each year, so too does the number of women who develop uterine cancer. Unlike other gynecologic cancers, which have been declining in recent years, uterine cancer rates continue to climb.” 

Certain types of cancer, including uterine cancer, grow in response to the hormone estrogen. Obesity increases estrogen levels in the body. Higher estrogen levels, in turn, cause changes in the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) that can become cancerous. 

“If you have a uterus, the number one thing you can do to lower your uterine cancer risk is to maintain a healthy weight,” Dr. Modesitt says. 

Watch for Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding, Too

When uterine cancer is identified at an early stage, before it has a chance to spread, it’s easier to treat. One way to ensure an early diagnosis is to learn the signs of uterine cancer—and promptly report them to your doctor.

“Abnormal bleeding is a hallmark of uterine cancer at any age,” Dr. Modesitt explains. “For women who have already gone through menopause, even a tiny bit of spotting or bleeding should be evaluated. And for pre-menopausal women, abnormal bleeding can refer to extremely heavy periods, bleeding between periods or irregular periods.” 

Just because you have abnormal bleeding doesn’t mean you have uterine cancer. But getting it checked out can offer peace of mind that you’re healthy—or lead to potentially lifesaving treatment. 

Find Out Your Genetic Risk for Ovarian Cancer

Do you have a family history of certain cancers, including breast, ovarian or pancreatic cancer? If so, there’s a chance you’ve inherited an abnormal gene that increases your own risk of these cancers. 

“Up to 25% of ovarian cancer cases are hereditary, meaning they’re caused by genetic changes that are passed down from one generation to the next,” Dr. Modesitt says. “For example, most women with hereditary ovarian cancer have an abnormality in genes called BRCA1 or BRCA2.”

Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. They’re supposed to repair cell damage and prevent you from developing certain cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer. If you’re born with an abnormality in one of these genes—also known as a gene mutation—the gene won’t work properly. So, anyone who inherits a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation has a higher risk of breast, ovarian and other cancers. 

If you have a strong family history of ovarian cancer, it’s possible to find out if you carry one of these genetic changes. Just ask your doctor about genetic testing and counseling.  

A licensed genetic counselor can help you understand your testing options, including the benefits and limitations of getting tested. They can help you move forward with testing—and can help you make medical decisions based on your results. 

“Finding out you’re genetically predisposed to ovarian cancer won’t prevent you from getting it. But knowledge is power,” Dr. Modesitt says. “If we know you have a higher risk, there are steps we can take to minimize your risk or detect cancer as early as possible.”  

For example, your doctor can prescribe medicines that lower the odds of cancer forming in the ovaries. They can order more frequent screening tests such as transvaginal ultrasounds. Also, there are blood tests that look for a certain protein associated with cancer. 

Salpingectomy: A Surgical Option for Cancer Prevention

Another option for women who are concerned about ovarian cancer is surgery to remove the fallopian tubes. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes that connect the ovaries and uterus. This surgery, called a salpingectomy, can be performed with or without an oophorectomy (surgery to remove one or both ovaries).

“Ovarian cancer often begins in the fallopian tubes,” Dr. Modesitt explains. “So, if we remove the fallopian tubes, we can decrease the risk of ovarian cancer by more than 50%.”

Dr. Modesitt and her colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute offer “opportunistic salpingectomy” to women who need pelvic surgery, such as a hysterectomy.

“If you’re already scheduled for pelvic surgery and you’re done having children, we can remove your fallopian tubes at the same time we perform your other procedure,” she says. “Not only does this decrease your ovarian cancer risk, but it eliminates the need for you to have a second surgery in the future.”

Not interested in surgery? Studies suggest that long-term use of birth control pills may cut your ovarian cancer risk in half.

Get Tested For (and Vaccinated Against) HPV

There is one key thing to remember about gynecologic cancer prevention. Protecting yourself from HPV infection protects you from getting cervical cancer, vulvar cancer and vaginal cancer later in life. 

“HPV is a very common virus that affects tens of millions of Americans every year,” Dr. Modesitt says. “Usually, the immune system clears the virus from the body. But sometimes the virus lingers and, over time, causes DNA changes that eventually lead to cancer.” 

But there is good news. Even though HPV infection causes more than 90% of all cervical cancers, HPV vaccination can prevent nearly all of them. And regular cervical cancer screenings help your doctor identify precancerous cells before they have a chance to become cancerous.  

“Today, there is no reason for a woman to have advanced cervical cancer,” Dr. Modesitt says. “I would love to never, ever again have to tell a young mother than she won’t live to see her child grow up because she has a cancer that could have been prevented.” 

Learn more about cervical cancer screening guidelines, including how often you should have a Pap smear and an HPV test. 

Take Care of Your Health

To take the first step for your cervical health, make an appointment with an OBGYN at one of Emory Healthcare’s convenient locations.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, the experts at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University are ready to help you. Visit our website to learn more about gynecologic cancer or find an Emory Healthcare specialist who treats it.
To take the first step for your cervical health, make an appointment with an OBGYN at one of Emory Healthcare’s convenient locations.

The Winship Difference

The Winship Cancer Institute experts at Emory Healthcare are here to help prevent, diagnose and treat gynecologic cancer. You can turn to us for:

  • The latest cancer treatments and clinical trials, including treatments that lower cancer risk 
  • Genetic counseling and testing through the Winship Genetic Counseling Clinic
  • Cancer screenings and HPV vaccination
  • Fertility preservation services—such as egg freezing and embryo freezing—that can improve your chances of starting a family after gynecologic cancer treatment 

Visit our website to learn more about gynecologic cancer or find an Emory Healthcare specialist who treats it.

About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University 

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a prestigious distinction given to the top 3% of cancer centers nationwide for conducting cancer research and providing training that is transforming cancer care, prevention, detection and survivorship. Winship discovers, develops, delivers and teaches some of the world’s most effective ways to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat each patient’s unique cancer. Cancer care at Winship includes specialists with deep expertise and experience in cancer; multidisciplinary evaluation, treatment planning and care coordination that caters to each patient’s individual needs; therapies supported by the latest advances in cancer research; and comprehensive clinical trials and support services.

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