Gynecologic Cancer

What is gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

Cancers are named for the part of the body in which they start. Gynecologic cancer is an umbrella term that encompasses the types of cancer that originate in the pelvis, or below the stomach and in between the hip bones. Because not all women have the same reproductive organs, gynecologic cancer can occur in anyone with a cervix, uterus, vulva, vagina, or ovaries. These five types of gynecologic cancer are the most common, and a much rarer type of gynecologic cancer occurs in a patient’s fallopian tubes. Each part of this reproductive system can produce a different kind of gynecologic cancer, with varying symptoms and risk factors.

What are the different types of gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

Gynecologic cancer points toward the area where the cancer first begins: pelvic reproductive organs like a cervix, uterus, vulva, vagina, ovaries, or fallopian tubes. As the term is broken down further, the types, and sources, of gynecologic cancer become more specific.

  • Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It typically begins in cells on the cervix’s surface. This cancer can be detected through a Pap smear test.
  • Uterine cancer begins in the uterus, the hollow organ where a fetus can develop if the person is impregnated. There are different kinds of uterine cancer, with the most common being endometrial cancer.
  • Vulvar cancer begins in the vulva, which are the external genitals like the opening of the vagina, clitoris, and the labia minora and labia majora. This is a slow-growing cancer that can develop over several years.
  • Vaginal cancer begins in the vagina, the hollow canal-like organ that connects the cervix to the vulva. This is one of the rarer forms of gynecologic cancer, most present in people over the age of 60.
  • Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, where eggs and hormones are produced. This type of cancer is not as common as other gynecologic cancers, but can be very severe.
  • Fallopian tube cancer begins in the fallopian tubes, the organs that connect the ovaries to the uterus. It is extremely rare, with only about 1,500 to 2,000 cases reported worldwide. For this reason, there is very little available information about fallopian tube cancer.

What causes gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

The five different types of most common gynecologic cancer have varying sources, and some of them have no known cause. Identifying risk factors can help in determining the cause of gynecologic cancer. See below for risk factors.

  • Cervical cancer is most often caused by a virus called HPV, or the Human papillomavirus. Not all strains of HPV cause cervical cancer. The two strains that commonly lead to cervical cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
  • Uterine cancer is usually diagnosed as endometrial cancer. However, there is no known cause of endometrial cancer.
  • Vulvar cancer can be caused by precancerous cells developing on the vulvar skin, which is referred to as vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia. This condition does not always lead to vulvar cancer, and can be treated best if diagnosed early.
  • Vaginal cancer is another type of gynecologic cancer without a clear cause, though it can be linked to patients with previous cases of HPV.
  • Ovarian cancer does not have an exact cause, but various risk factors, outlined below, can increase a patient’s risk for this type of gynecologic cancer.

What are common symptoms of gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

The likelihood of a patient developing gynecologic cancer is difficult to gauge, though some risk factors are outlined below. For this reason, it is imperative that people with reproductive organs that could develop gynecologic cancer know the rhythms of their bodies and can identify abnormalities. Symptoms can also vary based on which type of gynecologic cancer is present in a patient’s body.

  • Symptoms of cervical cancer include pelvic pain, unusual bleeding, frequent urination, pain during urination, and abnormal discharge.
  • Symptoms of uterine cancer include changes in menstrual period’s length or severity, bleeding or spotting between periods, post-menopausal bleeding, pain during sex, or abnormal discharge.
  • Symptoms of vulvar cancer include vulvar tenderness or itchiness, abnormal bleeding, or a lump present in the vulva. Patients should also look out for color changes or growths on the vulvar skin.
  • Symptoms of vaginal cancer do not present in the early stages of the cancer, but a patient might notice abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, or a lump in the vagina as the cancer develops.
  • Symptoms of ovarian cancer can also develop in the later stages of the cancer. Patients report a heavy feeling in the pelvis, abdominal pain, abnormal bleeding, back pain, weight loss or gain, or gastrointestinal disruption.

Are there any risk factors for developing gynecologic cancers?

Back to top

Anyone with a cervix, uterus, vulva, vagina, or ovaries is at risk for developing gynecologic cancer. Risk for these particular types of cancer increases with age. Though there is overlap between risk factors, each type of gynecologic cancer has its own range of risk factors.

  • Cervical cancer risk factors include taking birth control pills, carrying 3 pregnancies to full term, smoking, family history of cervical cancer, having HIV or chlamydia, and having a first pregnancy before the age of 17.
  • Uterine cancer risk factors include family history of cancer, changes in sex hormone levels, and certain medical conditions.
  • Vulvar cancer risk factors include smoking, having HIV, AIDS, or HPV, a history of genital warts, having vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, and having a skin condition like lichen planus.
  • Vaginal cancer risk factors include having HPV, previously undergoing radiation therapy, a history of cervical cancer, and smoking.
  • Ovarian cancer risk factors include past history of breast, uterine, or colon cancer, endometriosis, obesity, genetic mutations like BRCA1 or BRCA2, certain fertility drugs or hormone therapies, and never having been pregnant.


What are common treatments for gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

The best and most effective treatments often happen when the diagnosis is made earlier on in the cancer’s development. Treatment varies significantly depending on the type and severity of the gynecologic cancer. The most common treatments for gynecologic cancer include some types of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

When should a person see a doctor for gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

Monitoring symptoms and identifying risk factors can help make an accurate diagnosis, along with a doctor that understands and takes seriously issues regarding the reproductive organs. As soon as any symptoms develop, a patient should involve a doctor. Following a diagnosis, a doctor will figure out what stage the cancer is at and inform the patient. This staging process is necessary in order to create the most effective treatment plan. Additionally, if there is interest, doctors can help patients figure out fertility options.

What is the outlook for people living with gynecologic cancer?

Back to top

Above all, early intervention can make the biggest difference for a patient with gynecologic cancer. All people at risk for gynecologic cancer would benefit from yearly visits to a gynecologist, as well as additional appointments for any abnormalities that arise.

A doctor’s assessment and diagnosis of specific symptoms allows the collaborative team of specialists to create a treatment plan. A patient with gynecologic cancer will have regular appointments with a doctor. Depending on the patient’s treatment plan, some treatments can take months to fully complete.

Patients whose gynecological cancer is diagnosed and treated in its earlier stages have higher chances for survival. Additional risk factors, like age and quality of overall health, can also impact a patient’s chances of survival. Some gynecologic cancers, like ovarian cancer, are more severe in nature than others.

A patient’s fertility can be impacted by the severity of the cancer and the type of treatment used to treat the cancer. Patients with fertility concerns can review options and make a plan with a doctor. Pregnancy can increase risk for certain types of gynecologic cancer.