Sarah Cannon - September 28, 2021

While there are effective screening exams for many types of cancer (such as breast cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer and lung cancer), gynecologic cancers can be harder to detect. Unfortunately, there aren’t screening tests for most types of gynecologic cancer and symptoms can be vague. This means many cases aren’t found until they are in later stages when they are harder to treat. That’s why it’s essential to know the warning signs and risk factors and listen to your body when something doesn’t seem right.

What is gynecologic cancer?

Gynecologic cancer affects a woman’s reproductive tract. Types of gynecologic cancer include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Uterine cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

Here’s more information about each type of gynecologic cancer.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, which is located at the end of the uterus. Cervical precancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms, but early-stage and advanced cervical cancer can cause symptoms. Warning signs to watch for include:

  • Bleeding after a pelvic exam, sexual intercourse or douching
  • Heavier and longer bleeding during your period
  • Spotting or bleeding between periods
  • Increased or unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Unexplained frequent back or pelvic pain

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the sexually transmitted infection (STI) human papillomavirus (HPV). Fortunately, the HPV vaccine can eliminate up to 99% of cervical cancer cases in some populations.

HPV is very common in the United States and typically goes away on its own. But sometimes, it can cause precancerous changes to a woman’s cervix.

Other things can increase your risk of cervical cancer too, including:

  • Giving birth three or more times
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • HIV
  • Smoking
  • Taking birth control pills for five or more years

You can reduce your risk of cervical cancer (and vaginal and vulvar cancer) by getting the HPV vaccine at an early age. It’s recommended for children ages 11 to 12, though it can be given as early as age 9. Additionally, the vaccine is recommended for women and men up to age 45. 

Talk to your gynecologist about your cervical cancer risk factors. Get a pelvic exam and Pap test according to your doctor’s recommendations.

You can also reduce your risk by:

  • Limiting how many sexual partners you have
  • Using condoms during sexual intercourse
  • Not smoking

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries, which are located on both sides of the uterus. Cancer in the fallopian tubes and peritoneum (the lining of the tissue and organs in the abdomen) is also considered ovarian cancer.

Early symptoms of ovarian cancer are often vague and not specific to ovarian cancer. Symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal bloating and swelling
  • Nausea
  • Poor appetite or feeling full quickly
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Unexplained weight loss

Currently, there are no proven ways to prevent ovarian cancer and no screening test. However, the following factors are associated with a lower risk of the disease:

  • Breastfeeding
  • Giving birth
  • Taking birth control pills for five or more years
  • Getting your tubes tied
  • Having a hysterectomy
  • Having both ovaries removed

Of course, not all of these measures are appropriate for every woman, so talk to your physician about what’s right for you.

While most women who develop ovarian cancer aren’t considered high-risk, certain factors can increase your risk:

  • Being middle-aged or older
  • The BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene
  • A genetic mutation associated with Lynch syndrome
  • A personal history of breast, colorectal or uterine cancer
  • A family history of ovarian cancer (a sister, mother, grandmother or aunt diagnosed with the disease)
  • Endometriosis
  • Never giving birth
  • Taking estrogen by itself for 10 or more years

Uterine cancer

Uterine cancer occurs in the uterus (also called the womb). Symptoms of uterine cancer can include:

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding, particularly postmenopausal bleeding (once you’re done with menopause, you shouldn’t continue to spot or have any kind of vaginal bleeding; if you do, see your doctor right away)
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area

There are currently no screening tests for or proven ways to reduce your risk of uterine cancer.

The following factors are associated with an increased risk of uterine cancer:

  • Being 50 or older
  • Obesity
  • Taking estrogen by itself as a hormone replacement
  • Taking tamoxifen for breast cancer treatment
  • Trouble getting pregnant
  • A family history of uterine, ovarian or colorectal cancer
  • Having fewer than five periods a year before menopause

The following factors are associated with a lower risk:

  • Being physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Managing diabetes well
  • Taking birth control pills
  • Taking progesterone if you take estrogen
  • Using a progestin-secreting intrauterine device (IUD) for birth control

Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer starts in the vagina, a tubelike structure that connects the outside of the body to the bottom of the uterus.

Symptoms of vaginal cancer include:

  • Abnormal bleeding or discharge
  • Blood in your stool or urine
  • Constipation or abnormal bowel function
  • Pain during urination or sexual intercourse
  • Pain in your pelvic region
  • Going to the bathroom more often than usual
  • Swelling in your legs

There are no proven ways to prevent vaginal cancer and no screening tests.

You may be at higher risk for vaginal cancer if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have HPV for a long time
  • Have HIV
  • Have cervical precancer or cervical cancer
  • Have consistent burning or itching on your vulva

Getting the HPV vaccine early may reduce your risk of vaginal cancer.

Research has also shown the following factors may reduce your risk of vaginal cancer:

  • Getting regular Pap tests
  • Not smoking (or quitting if you currently smoke)
  • Not having sexual intercourse until your late teens or older
  • Limiting your number of sexual partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners
  • Using condoms during sexual intercourse

Vulvar cancer

Vulvar cancer occurs in the vulva, which is the exterior of the female genitals.

Signs of vulvar cancer include:

  • Itching, bleeding or burning on the vulva
  • Warts, rash, lumps or sores on the vulva
  • Pain during sex or urination
  • Color changes on the vulva

There are no proven ways to prevent vulvar cancer and no screening tests.

You may be at higher risk for vulvar cancer if you:

  • Are age 50 or older
  • Smoke
  • Have HPV for a long time
  • Have an immunodeficiency, such as HIV
  • Have a precancerous condition called vulva intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)
  • Have cervical precancer, cervical cancer, vaginal cancer or melanoma elsewhere on the body
  • Have Lichen sclerosus, a condition that makes the vulvar skin itchy and thin

Getting the HPV vaccine early may reduce your risk of vulvar cancer.

Research has also shown the following factors may reduce your risk of vaginal cancer:

  • Getting regular Pap tests
  • Not smoking (or quitting if you currently smoke)
  • Not having sexual intercourse until your late teens or older
  • Limiting your number of sexual partners
  • Avoiding sexual intercourse with someone who has had many partners
  • Using condoms during sexual intercourse

When to seek medical care

Warning signs of gynecologic cancer can be nonspecific and may be caused by other conditions. However, if you experience abnormal vaginal bleeding, see your healthcare provider immediately. If you have any other symptoms mentioned above, see your provider if they don’t go away after two weeks.

Learn more about gynecologic cancer.