Cancer can develop in several areas of the female reproductive tract, including the cervix, endometrium, fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, and vagina. These types of cancer are known as gynecologic cancer, and it's important to educate yourself about the symptoms, types, and screenings.
Symptoms of gynecologic cancer
The symptoms and signs can vary depending on the type and location of the cancer, but the following are common signs to look for:
- A lump or mass in the pelvic area or vagina
- Difficult or painful urination
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as gas, bloating, or constipation
- Pain during sexual intercourse, or vaginal bleeding after intercourse
- Pain, swelling, or a feeling of fullness or pressure in the abdomen or pelvis
- Vaginal bleeding or discharge not related to menstrual periods
- Menstruation that is heavy or irregular
- Vaginal discharge that is clear, white, or tinged with blood
Cervical cancer is often a slow developing form of cancer that is preceded by abnormal cells appearing in the cervical tissue. Specific types of human papillomavirus (HPV) transmitted through sexual contact are the cause of almost all cervical cancers. The main types of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the thin, flat cells lining the cervix, and adenocarcinoma, which develops in the cervical cells that make mucus and other fluids.
Uterine cancer that develops in the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus, is also called endometrial cancer. Most uterine cancers are adenocarcinomas - cancers that begin in cells that make mucus and other fluids. Uterine sarcoma, an uncommon form of uterine cancer, forms in the muscle and tissue that support the uterus and is often aggressive.
Ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancer
Because they may not cause symptoms or exhibit early warning signs and because there is no screening test, ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancers are often found at advanced stages. Risk factors for ovarian, fallopian tube, and primary peritoneal cancers include having a family history of ovarian cancer or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC; Lynch syndrome) and having an inherited gene mutation such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Genetic tests that detect mutated genes may be conducted for family members with a high risk of cancer. Learn more about ovarian cancer by visiting Understanding signs, risk factors, and diagnostic tests for ovarian cancer on the Sarah Cannon Blog.
Vaginal cancer includes squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common type, adenocarcinoma, melanoma, and sarcoma. Vaginal cancer can be found during a routine pelvic exam and can be treated effectively when detected early. Certain factors can increase the risk of developing vaginal cancer including:
- Being age 60 or older
- Being exposed to DES (administered to women in the 1950s to prevent miscarriages)
- Having HPV
- Having a history of abnormal cells in the cervix or cervical cancer
- Having a history of abnormal cells in the uterus or cancer of the uterus
- Having had a hysterectomy for health problems that affect the uterus
Vulvar cancer includes squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common, and adenocarcinoma, with half of all vulvar cancers caused by infection with certain types of HPV. Vulvar cancer develops slowly and can be preceded by the growth of abnormal cells (vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia or VIN) on the surface of the vulvar skin. Signs of vulvar cancer typically include a lump, bleeding, or itching.
Screening tests for gynecologic cancers
Talk with your doctor about the frequency at which you need HPV testing and PAP testing based on your age, personal history, and risk factors.
It is important to know that the information in this post, including Sarah Cannon’s recommendations for screening, is accurate as of the publishing date.