Gynecologic cancer is any cancer that starts in a woman’s reproductive organs. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts. Gynecologic cancers begin in different places within a woman’s pelvis, which is the area below the stomach and in between the hip bones.
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. (The uterus is also called the womb.)
Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, which are located on each side of the uterus.
Uterine cancer begins in the uterus, the pear-shaped organ in a woman’s pelvis where the baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
Vaginal cancer begins in the vagina, which is the hollow, tube-like channel between the bottom of the uterus and the outside of the body.
Vulvar cancer begins in the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs.
Each gynecologic cancer is unique, with different signs and symptoms, different risk factors (things that may increase your chance of getting a disease), and different prevention strategies. All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers and risk can increase with age. When gynecologic cancers are found early, treatment is most effective.
There is no way to know for sure if you will get gynecologic cancer. That’s why it is important to pay attention to your body and know what is normal for you so you can recognize the warning signs or symptoms of gynecologic cancer.
If you have vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you, talk to a doctor right away. You should also see a doctor if you have any other warning signs that last for two weeks or longer and are not normal for you. Symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see a doctor.
Of all the gynecologic cancers, only cervical cancer has a reliable screening test (Pap test) that can find this cancer early. The Pap test also helps prevent cervical cancer by finding precancers such as cell changes on the cervix that might become cancerous if they are not treated appropriately.
In addition to the Pap test, which is the main screening test for cervical cancer, a test called the HPV test looks for HPV infection. It is recommended to be used along with the Pap test for screening women aged 30 years and older. It also is used to provide more information when Pap test results are unclear for women aged 21 and older. Learn more about the Pap and HPV tests.
Since there is no simple and reliable way to screen for any gynecologic cancers except cervical cancer, it is especially important to recognize warning signs and learn if there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Talk with your doctor if you believe that you are at an increased risk for gynecologic cancer. Ask what you might do to lower your risk and whether there are tests that you should take.
If your doctor says that you have gynecologic cancer, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist—a doctor who has been trained to treat cancers of a woman’s reproductive system. This doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan.
Types of Treatment
There are several ways to treat gynecologic cancer. The treatment depends on the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. People with cancer often get more than one kind of treatment.
Surgery: Doctors remove cancer tissue in an operation.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy may cause side effects, but these often get better or go away when treatment is over. Chemotherapy drugs may be given in several forms including pills or through an IV (intravenous) injection.
Radiation: Radiation uses high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to try to kill the cancer cells and stop them from spreading. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer is.
Different treatments may be provided by different doctors on your medical team.
Gynecologic oncologists are doctors who have been trained to treat cancers of a woman’s reproductive system. These physicians are specialists who provide comprehensive surgical and medical care for women with gynecological cancers.
Gynecologic oncologists often work with radiation oncologists who are doctors that treat cancers with radiation.
If you have gynecologic cancer, you may want to take part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials study new treatment options to see if they are safe and effective. Ask your gynecological oncologist about clinical trials for your diagnosis.
Additional information about clinical trials is provided on the sites listed below: