Understanding the difference between cervical and ovarian cancer

While breast cancer gets the most visibility as a leading cancer for women, cancers of the female reproductive system are widespread, albeit less discussed.

Many people are uncomfortable speaking about any goings-on below (or around) the belt, and this effect extends to a number of cancers including bowel, colorectal, and prostate cancers. For women, not only is it considered indelicate to speak of the various reproductive organs, but many people are a bit foggy on what exactly is down there in the first place.

Internally, the cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb where it joins the vagina. It is located next to the bladder in the lower abdomen. It opens into the uterus, where a fetus would be carried in the event of pregnancy. There are two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus, connected by Fallopian tubes. Cervical and ovarian cancers therefore take place in different organs located adjacent to one another and are associated with different causes and symptoms.

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common and dangerous cancers for American women. The most common cause of cervical cancer is human papilloma virus (HPV), for which there is an effective vaccine. In many countries, the HPV vaccine is offered to adolescent girls, since HPV is both common and highly communicable. It can readily be transferred through skin contact.

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 13 thousand new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the US in 2018, and over four thousand women will die of the disease.

A mortality rate of over 20% is by no means ideal, especially in a mostly preventable disease. However, screening programs for adult women such as regular Pap tests are proving an effective way of catching cervical cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages, and the HPV vaccine is remarkably effective at preventing the most common forms of cervical cancer in the first place.

Ovarian cancers are less common, but more diverse and more likely not to be diagnosed until a later stage of development, as there are no reliable screening tests and catching the cancer in its nascent stages is extremely challenging. Women with Polycystic Ovarian System (PCOS) can be at risk of ovarian cancer, and unlike cervical cancers, which mostly manifest in older adult and middle-aged women, ovarian cancers may arise in younger women.

While there are a number of different types of ovarian cancers, they do tend to be less damaging. Removal and treatment, even at later stages, can be effective and low risk. However, it usually takes a very specialized medical professional such as a gynecologic oncologist, and a remarkably observant and diligent patient to report, observe, and diagnose the cancer in the first place.

Knowing what to look for and where to go for help, as well as staying on top of the latest research and developments can help you improve your outcomes. Early screening and early treatment of emerging cancer provide the best outcomes. The internet, and especially social media, make it easy to monitor oncology news. Oncotarget is an online oncology journal. It collects research and publishes to social media to keep readers up to date. It is possible to find very direct access to reputable scientific and medical research online.

Look for a source that reports on new developments and includes peer-reviewed scientific research, rather than interpreting results for you. Standard reporting often fails to convey research and findings accurately. A newsworthy spin on new research or treatments under development can often misrepresent, misinterpret, and mislead. Results may be exaggerated or misunderstood entirely by the reporter, making it much more valuable to go straight to the original source for news and recommendations.

While cancer is a frightening topic for many, educating yourself can help reduce fear and empower you to monitor your own health and seek out information and responses for better outcomes. Take the time to understand the elements of your own body, potential side effects or early warning signs to look out for, and appropriate responses. Take every opportunity for early screening as appropriate to your age and sex. Report any changes you observe to a medical professional, even minor ones, and even if you don’t feel they’re of concern. And if you are part of a high-risk demographic or have been diagnosed with cancer in the past, staying on top of the latest oncology research can keep you up to date with preventative actions, new screening opportunities, and medications or treatments that could make all the difference.