A number of cancers can arise in the female reproductive organs. This leaflet explains where these organs are and links to information about the individual cancers.
A reminder about female anatomy
Gynaecological cancers are those which arise in the female reproductive organs. So it helps to be able to picture what and where those are.
The womb (uterus) is a pouch with walls made of muscle. It is where babies grow when you are pregnant. The inside lining of the womb is called the endometrium. This lining is shed every month causing the bleeding you experience as a period when you are not pregnant.
The lower opening, or neck of the womb, is called the cervix. This is the opening through which the blood travels from the womb to the outside during a period. It stretches wide open during childbirth.
The cervix sits at the top of a muscular tube called the vagina. This is a passage through which the blood passes during a period, and a baby during childbirth. Also when a baby is first conceived, the sperm from a man's penis gets to the cervix during sex, when the man's penis is in the woman's vagina.
The ovaries are two oval-shaped organs connected to the upper part of the womb on either side by the Fallopian tubes. Ovaries produce eggs and release them (where they are passed through the Fallopian tubes to the womb) in a monthly process called ovulation. The ovaries also produce the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone.
The vulva is the part of the female reproductive system which is on the outside. It is the part of the genital area which surrounds the opening of the vagina.
The vulva includes:
- The labia majora. These are, in effect, large folds of skin.
- The labia minora. These are more delicate folds of skin just inside the labia majora.
- The clitoris - a small organ involved with sexual arousal.
- Tiny glands, the most prominent being the Bartholin's glands.
- The entrance to the urethra - the tube through which urine is passed from the bladder.
- The entrance to the vagina.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a condition where cells of a particular body organ multiply out of control. These abnormal cells can then spread around the body, causing damage and harm. Cancers in different organs are different illnesses, with different symptoms and different treatments. See the separate leaflet called Cancer.
What types of gynaecological cancers are there?
Cancer can arise in any of the female reproductive organs. Click on the links below to read about each individual type of cancer.
- Cancer of the uterus (endometrial cancer).
- Cancer of the ovary.
- Cancer of the cervix.
- Cancer of the vulva. A pre-cancerous skin condition called vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) can, in some cases, turn into cancer of the vulva if not treated.
- Cancer of the vagina. This is very rare. It tends to occur in older women.
- Cancer of the Fallopian tubes. This is rare. It tends to have similar symptoms to ovarian cancer and is diagnosed and treated in much the same way.
Is there screening for gynaecological cancers?
Currently in the UK there is a national screening programme for cervical cancer, but none of the other gynaecological cancers. This is because cervical cancer, in many cases, can be picked up in the very early stages, before it is even cancer. Typical cell changes are picked up in a smear test. Read about cervical screening (the cervical smear test) for more information. This pre-cancer stage can be treated so that cancer doesn't develop. This is done during a process called colposcopy. Read about colposcopy and cervical treatments.
Further reading and references
Ovarian cancer - the recognition and initial management of ovarian cancer; NICE Clinical Guideline (April 2011)
Newly diagnosed and relapsed epithelial ovarian carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; European Society for Medical Oncology (2013)
Management of epithelial ovarian cancer; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (Nov 2013)
Ovarian cancer statistics; Cancer Research UK
Targeted Therapies for the Management of Ovarian Cancer: Scientific Impact Paper No. 12; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, September 2013
Jacobs IJ, Menon U, Ryan A, et al; Ovarian cancer screening and mortality in the UK Collaborative Trial of Ovarian Cancer Screening (UKCTOCS): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2015 Dec 16. pii: S0140-6736(15)01224-6. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)01224-6.
Endometrial cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; European Society for Medical Oncology (2013)
Wong AW, Lao TH, Cheung CW, et al; Reappraisal of endometrial thickness for the detection of endometrial cancer in postmenopausal bleeding: a retrospective cohort study. BJOG. 2015 Mar 20. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.13342.
Kwon JS; Improving survival after endometrial cancer: the big picture. J Gynecol Oncol. 2015 Jul26(3):227-31. doi: 10.3802/jgo.2015.26.3.227.
Management of cervical cancer; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (January 2008)
Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Vulval Carcinoma; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (May 2014)
Lawrie TA, Patel A, Martin-Hirsch PP, et al; Sentinel node assessment for diagnosis of groin lymph node involvement in vulval cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Jun 276:CD010409. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010409.pub2.
Lai J, Elleray R, Nordin A, et al; Vulval cancer incidence, mortality and survival in England: age-related trends. BJOG. 2014 May121(6):728-38
Fertility Sparing Treatments in Gynaecological Cancers: Scientific Impact Paper No. 35; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, February 2013
Reyes MC, Cooper K; An update on vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia: terminology and a practical approach to diagnosis. J Clin Pathol. 2014 Apr67(4):290-4. doi: 10.1136/jclinpath-2013-202117. Epub 2014 Jan 7.
Arbyn M, Roelens J, Simoens C, et al; Human papillomavirus testing versus repeat cytology for triage of minor cytological cervical lesions. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Mar 283:CD008054. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008054.pub2.
Galaal K, Bryant A, Deane KH, et al; Interventions for reducing anxiety in women undergoing colposcopy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Dec 7(12):CD006013. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006013.pub3.
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