Cancers that start in the female reproductive system are called gynecologic cancer. The five common types of gynecologic cancer are endometrial (or uterine), ovarian, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal. In the U.S., more than 110,000 women will be diagnosed with gynecologic cancer in 2022, and about 30,000 will die from it. While each type of gynecologic cancer has different risk factors, it’s essential to learn about ways to reduce your chance of developing them.
How to reduce your risk of gynecologic cancer
Some risk factors of gynecologic cancer cannot be changed. These include:
- Getting older
- Having a family history of gynecologic cancer
- Having a genetic predisposition
- Having been exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) while in the womb
But you can take steps to minimize your risk and catch gynecologic cancer early.
1. Live a healthy lifestyle
According to the American Cancer Society, the more physically active you are, the lower your risk of developing endometrial cancer. Obesity has been linked to a higher chance of developing endometrial cancer and may decrease the survival of a person with ovarian cancer.
Being physically active also helps reduce your risk of blood pressure and diabetes – two conditions that can increase your chances of developing endometrial cancer.
Living a healthy lifestyle, including making healthy choices and getting regular exercise, may help decrease your risk of endometrial cancer and other cancers.
2. Avoid HPV infection
Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your chance of developing cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer. HPV infection is responsible for about 9 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer. It can also cause other cancers in women and men.
HPV is a highly contagious virus that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. It’s commonly called a sexually transmitted infection (STI) because it’s often transmitted during sex.
But you can also get HPV without having sex. For example, it can also be spread through direct skin contact with an infected area of the body or an infected object.
You can protect yourself from getting infected with HPV by:
- Receiving the HPV vaccine
- Avoiding sex with a person who has HPV
- Having fewer sexual partners
- Using a condom
3. Get the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine can help protect you against certain types of HPV infection. By doing so, you also help decrease your risk of getting cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer.
It’s important to know that while this vaccine can keep you from getting infected with HPV, it is not a treatment if you already have HPV.
The CDC recommends that teens and young adults receive the HPV vaccine, and up to three doses can be administered.
4. Get screening tests
A cancer screening test helps find signs of cancer before symptoms appear. Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer that has screening tests available. These tests are the Pap test (Pap smear) and the HPV test.
The Pap test looks for abnormal (or precancerous) cells in the cervix that can lead to cancer. The HPV test can detect HPV infection. Both tests are done by a healthcare professional who collects a sample of cells from the cervix.
Getting these screening tests regularly – as recommended based on your age – will help reduce your risk of developing gynecologic cancer.
5. Get regular gynecology check ups
In addition to doing screening tests during your gynecologic checkups, your doctor will also do pelvic examinations.
These exams include checking the skin of the outer female genitalia for signs of vulvar cancer. During a checkup, your gynecologist will also do a manual exam to check for possible signs of other gynecologic cancers.
Getting your gynecologic checkups done regularly is a vital preventative step to help reduce your risk and find gynecologic cancers early.
6. Do your self-examination
Vulvar cancer affects the vulva – the outer part of the female genitals, such as the opening of the vagina, the outer lips, the inner lips, and the clitoris. Common warning signs of vulvar cancer are itching in the vulva and unusual skin changes.
Just as you do a monthly breast self-exam, you can also perform a vulvar self-examination. You can do this by using a mirror to visually inspect your outer genitals for anything unusual like a change in skin color or texture, an open sore, or a lump. Call your doctor if you find anything new or unusual.
Remember that a vulvar self-examination does not replace your regular checkups and pelvic exam performed by your gynecologist.
7. Avoid smoking
In general, smoking is linked to many types of cancer. Smoking increases your risk of developing cervical cancer, a type of ovarian cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer.
You can reduce your risk of gynecologic cancer – and other cancers – by avoiding smoking. Even if you’ve smoked for years, quitting tobacco can reduce your cancer risk.
8. Know your family history
Certain gynecologic cancers run in families, which can increase your chance of developing this condition. Some inherited gene mutations like Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer syndrome (HBOC), Lynch syndrome, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome can increase your risk of developing gynecologic cancer.
Although you can’t change genetics, it’s important to know if certain cancers run in your family and talk to your doctor about it. Genetic tests are becoming more available to help find out if you have a predisposition to a type of cancer and what your options are.
9. Recognize the warning signs
Knowledge is power. A simple and vital way to reduce your risk of gynecologic cancer is by becoming familiar with the symptoms of each type. By doing so, you can catch warning signs early and discuss any concerns with your doctor.
Gynecologic cancer – or any cancer – is not 100% preventable, but there are ways to minimize your risk. Staying physically active, getting regular checkups and screening tests, taking the HPV vaccine, and reducing your exposure to HPV are some steps you can take. Knowing the warning signs of gynecologic cancer can help you find cancer early when treatment is likely to be most effective. Watch for changes in your body and talk to your doctor about them.
September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month – an opportune time to educate yourself about ways to be vigilant and decrease your risk of this group of cancers.
Certain risk factors – like age, family history, and inherited genes – cannot be changed.
Healthy lifestyle choices, exercising, avoiding HPV infection, receiving the HPV vaccine, and staying tobacco-free are some ways to decrease your risk of gynecologic cancer.
In addition to knowing your family history, regular gynecologic checkups and screening tests are crucial to help minimize your chance of gynecologic cancer.
While there is no guaranteed way to completely prevent gynecologic cancer, taking steps to reduce your risk and finding cancer early offer the best chance for successful treatment.
American Cancer Society. Can Cervical Cancer be Prevented?
American Cancer Society. Can Endometrial Cancer be Prevented?
American Cancer Society. Can Ovarian Cancer be Prevented?
American Cancer Society. Can Vaginal Cancer be Prevented?
American Cancer Society. Can Vulvar Cancer be Prevented?
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Statistics.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gynecologic Cancer Awareness.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancers Caused by HPV are Preventable.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genetic Testing.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Can I do to Reduce my Risk?
Foundation for Women’s Cancer. Gynecologic Cancers Risk and Prevention.
National Foundation for Cancer Research. 6 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Gynecologic Cancer.