Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Prevention: Gynecologic Cancer

Doctors cannot always explain why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t. However, scientists have studied general patterns of cancer in the population to learn what things around us and what things we do in our lives may increase our chance of developing cancer.

The exact cause of gynecologic cancer is not known. However, physicians believe that avoiding the known risk factors, when possible, such as using oral contraceptives, delaying the start of sexual activity, using condoms, not smoking, having regular physical and pelvic examinations, and having routine Pap tests, are some of the best ways to lower the risk of developing certain forms of gynecologic cancer.

Early detection of cervical problems, for example, is the best way to prevent cervical cancer.

Pelvic Exams and Pap Tests

Routine pelvic examinations and Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions that often can be treated before cancer develops. Invasive cancer that does occur would likely be found at an earlier stage. Pelvic examinations and Pap tests are the methods used to determine if there are cervical problems.

Sylvester supports the new screening guidelines issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which state the following: Cervical cancer screening should begin at age 21. Between ages 21 and 29, women should have a Pap test every two years. Women 30 and older should be screened every three years.

Previous guidelines recommended that screening begin at age 21 or three years after first intercourse.

Read Sylvester’s statement on cervical cancer screening »

A pelvic examination allows a physician to check on the health of the female pelvic organs. This is done by inserting a speculum into the vagina. The speculum looks a little like a duck’s bill and allows the cervix to be seen clearly. Once the speculum is inserted, the physician will feel inside the vagina with one or two fingers, leaving the other hand flat on the lower abdomen. During the examination, a Pap test or smear may be taken.

A Pap test is a way to check cells from the cervix and the vagina. The test can detect precancerous changes or cancer of the cervix or vagina, as well as other conditions and infections. During this test, a sample of surface cells is taken from the cervix with a small flat wooden spatula or a small brush. The sample is placed on a small glass slide and sent away to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope.

National Institutes of Health

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a pelvic examination and Pap test allow a doctor to detect abnormal changes in the cervix. If an infection is present, it is treated and the Pap test is repeated at a later date. If the examination or Pap test suggests something other than an infection, a repeated Pap test and other tests are performed to determine the problem.

Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus, including the cervix) should ask their doctor’s advice about having pelvic examinations and Pap tests.

The Pap test was invented by Dr. George N. Papanicolaou, a pioneer in endocrinology research whose outstanding contributions to science and medicine earned him recognition as “the father of modern endocrinology.”

Millions of women owe their lives to Dr. Papanicolaou. The “Pap Test” has provided the chief single reason for the reduction of deaths in women from cervical cancer. In 1962, the Papanicolaou Cancer Research Institute in Miami, Florida, was dedicated in his honor. In 1984, the institute merged with Sylvester and the two institutions became one institution dedicated to cancer research, medical education, and treatment.

Genetic Testing

Genetic testing is used in the area of gynecological cancer to determine if ovarian and endometrial cancers are hereditary. Through a genetic test done at Sylvester, we can determine if a patient is predisposed to develop one of these cancers. Patients who are diagnosed at an early age are usually referred to see one of our genetic counselors.