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Gynecologic oncology offers women expert care

Gynecologic cancer
A gynecologic oncologist is trained to diagnose and treat female reproductive cancers.

It’s important for women to be seen annually by a gynecologist who’s 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, screen for infections, visual exams to look for pelvic masses or lesions in the womb, vagina or vulva, and discussions about birth control. Similarly, if a woman is diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer, or has early symptoms of disease, it’s important that she see a gynecologic oncologist, who is fellowship trained to diagnose and treat female reproductive cancers, including those of the cervix, ovaries, uterus, vagina and vulva.

“Gynecologic oncologists are unique,” says Ruchi Garg, MD, Program Director for Gynecologic Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) and Gynecologic Oncologist at CTCA® Atlanta. “We treat patients from the beginning of their therapy to its completion. And we only focus on cancers affecting female reproductive organs.”

In fact, research suggests that women with gynecologic cancers who are treated by a gynecologic oncologist have better outcomes and chances for survival than those who are not. Any woman with a known or suspected gynecologic cancer should be evaluated and treated by a gynecologic oncologist from the start, if possible, Dr. Garg says.

Unique skills

Gynecologic cancers are complex, and treatment often involves multiple approaches, such as surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. A gynecologic oncologist is that one doctor who may be able to manage all or most of your treatment. They’re trained to perform surgery, including procedures to stage the disease and debulking to surgically remove the cancer.

At CTCA, Dr. Garg says, gynecologic oncologists use state-of-the-art robotic and minimally invasive surgical technology to locate and remove tumors that have spread in the pelvic and abdominal areas and to conduct sentinel lymph node dissections, intended to help prevent postoperative complications. Following surgery, a gynecologic oncologist may administer chemotherapy or targeted or immunotherapy, if needed.

“We are trained to perform diagnoses as well as surgical management,” Dr. Garg says. “But we can also administer chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. No other oncology specialty or rather any specialty that can do that.”

Gynecologic oncologists may also use genetic and genomic testing to help determine individualized treatment options and assess cancer risks for patients.

“We use advanced genomic testing to personalize treatment for an individual patient’s tumor,” Dr. Garg says. “We also incorporate genetic screening in treatment, to not just teat the patient for the current disease but perhaps prevent future diseases and assess risks for members of her family.”

Impacts on fertility

Many gynecologic cancer patients are concerned about how treatment will affect sexual function, and younger patients often have concerns about fertility. “Gynecologic oncologists are trained to perform fertility sparing surgeries and provide options to help preserve fertility, when possible,” Dr. Garg says.

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,” Dr. Garg says. “With so many cancers, body image issues, sexual function issues, menopause symptoms, and even emotional distress can 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 those 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 (bleeding between periods, heavy menstrual bleeding, post-menopausal spotting, post-intercourse spotting)
  • Pelvic pain or pressure
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating and early satiety
  • Changes in bathroom habits that are persistent (increased urination, constipation, diarrhea, thin or ribbon-like stool)
  • Itching or burning of the vulva
  • Changes in vulva color or skin (rash, sores, warts, ulcers)

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