If you meet several risk factors, if your Pap test results are abnormal or if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer, your doctor will conduct further tests to confirm a diagnosis.
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Signs & Symptoms
Most signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancer could be described as general discomfort in the lower abdomen. More specifically, they include:
- Bloating, indigestion, nausea or gas
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea, constipation or frequent urination
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pain during intercourse
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding that starts and stops between regular menstrual periods, occurs after sexual intercourse, is heavier or lasts longer than usual, or occurs after menopause
Women experience these symptoms differently, but in many cases, symptoms do not occur until the cancer is advanced. See your physician if any of symptoms occur almost daily or start and last for several weeks.
Diagnosis includes a pelvic examination to feel the vagina, rectum and lower abdomen for masses or growths. A Pap test may be done as part of the pelvic examination.
An ultrasound uses sound waves and echoes to create a black-and-white image or map of the inside of the body. In order to conduct an ultrasound on the gynecologic system, the doctor inserts a probe that has a small ultrasound transducer on the end into the vagina. The images that the ultrasound returns help the doctor confirm his or her findings.
Your doctor may order a CT/CAT scan of the pelvis. These scans use multiple X-rays at different angles to create 3D images of the inside of the body. Doctors use these images to determine if cancer is present, its location, its stage, and whether or not it has spread. CT scans also help doctors visualize the treatment’s progress.
To conduct a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, the doctor injects a sugar-based radioactive tracer. The tracer couples with cancer cells and emits radioactive signals that the PET scan system reads. It turns these readings into images that doctors use to find where cancer has spread.
A PET/CT exam combines the metabolic information of a PET scan and the anatomical information of a CT scan to give doctors an accurate look at what's happening inside the body, and where it's happening.
Lower Gastrointestinal Series
A lower gastrointestinal (GI) series is also commonly called a barium enema. Barium is a chalky substance that is highly visible on x-rays. However, in order for your doctor to perform the procedure, the colon must be empty. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to prepare, which usually include taking a laxative, drinking only clear liquids, and fasting before the procedure.
Your doctor may request a simple blood test to check for a protein called CA-125. Elevated levels usually indicate that cancer is present. This test is commonly used to look for early stage ovarian cancer.
A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue to test for disease. In the case of gynecologic cancer, your doctor will perform a procedure much like a Pap test to gather cells, and then send that sample to a laboratory. A pathologist will search for cancer cells in the samples under a microscope. If the pathologist finds cancer cells, additional tests may be recommended to verify the type of cancer.
The pathologist who studied the biopsy will send a report to your doctor. This report will contain information on the type of cancer and a grade based on the how abnormal the cells look. The report will also include predictions on how likely the cancer is to grow, spread throughout the body and recur after treatment. Your doctor will use this information to craft a tailored treatment plan.