Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Definition: Gynecologic Cancer

For detailed treatment information on a particular type of gynecologic cancer, click on the link below to read more.

Cervical Cancer

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) located between the bladder and the rectum. It forms a canal that opens into the vagina, which leads to the outside of the body.

According to the National Cancer Institute, each year about 15,000 women in the United States learn that they have cancer of the cervix. This is a condition that occurs when abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs. The disease is called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women over the age of 40.

Risk Factors

While the causes of cervical cancer are not fully understood, researchers have found certain risk factors associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), most often the result of unprotected sex
  • Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other condition that weakens the immune system
  • Smoking—Women who smoke are nearly twice as likely as non-smokers to have cervical cancer
  • Age—Risk increases between the late teens and mid-30s
  • Having many sexual partners, and having partners who have had sexual intercourse at a young age, and/or have had many partners themselves

Endometrial Cancer

The lining of the uterus is called the endometrium. Cancer of the endometrium accounts for 95 percent of uterine cancers, the most common cancer of the female reproductive organs. Cancer of the endometrium is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells are found in the endometrium. Endometroid cancer is a specific type of endometrial cancer.

Cancer of the endometrium is different from cancer of the muscle of the uterus, which is called sarcoma of the uterus. Endometrial cancer is highly curable when found early. According to the American Cancer Society, about 40,100 cases of cancer of the uterine body were diagnosed in the United States in 2003.

Risk Factors

While the causes of endometrial cancer are not fully understood, researchers have found certain risk factors associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The risk factors for endometrial cancer include:

  • Starting monthly periods before the age of 12
  • Late menopause—After the age of 52
  • Infertility—Inability to become pregnant
  • Never having children
  • Obesity
  • Being treated with Tamoxifen for breast cancer
  • Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) to treat the effects of menopause
  • A diet high in animal fat
  • Diabetes
  • Age—Risk increases after age 40
  • Being Caucasian
  • Family history of endometrial cancer or colon cancer
  • Personal history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Prior radiation therapy for pelvic cancer

Ovarian Cancer

The ovaries are female reproductive organs located in the pelvis. There are two of them—one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries produce eggs and the female hormones produce estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone control the development of female body characteristics, such as breasts, body shape, and body hair, and regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells are found in an ovary. There are three types of ovarian tumors, named for the tissue in which they are found—epithelial (cells that cover the surface of the ovary), germ cell (cells that form eggs in the ovary), and stromal cell (cells that form the ovary and produce female hormones).

About one in every 57 women in the United States will develop ovarian cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most cases occur in women over the age of 50, but the disease can also affect younger women.

Risk Factors

The cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but there are certain risk factors that indicate an increase in a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer. The following have been suggested as risk factors for ovarian cancer:

  • Starting monthly periods before the age of 12
  • Late menopause—After the age of 52
  • Infertility—Inability to become pregnant
  • Age—Risk increases after age 50
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Infertility—Inability to become pregnant
  • Having a first child after the age of 30
  • Personal history of breast or colon cancer
  • Family history of ovarian cancer, particularly first-degree relatives (mother, daughter, sister), or breast or colon cancer
  • Fertility drugs

Uterine Cancer

The uterus, also called the womb, is a hollow, pear-shaped organ located in a woman’s lower abdomen, between the bladder and rectum. It is made up of the cervix (lower portion), the corpus (upper part), the myometrium (outer layer of the corpus), and the endometrium (inner lining of the uterus).

Cancers that occur in each part of the uterus have their own names, such as cervical cancer or endometrial cancer, but are sometimes broadly defined as uterine cancer because the structure is part of the uterus. Cancer of the uterus spreads through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Cancer of the uterus is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system. It accounts for six percent of all cancers in women in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. The most common type of uterine cancer is endometrial cancer, accounting for 95 percent of urterine cancers.

Risk Factors

While the causes of uterine cancer are not fully understood, researchers have found certain risk factors associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The risk factors for uterine cancer include:

  • Age—Risk increases after age 50
  • History of endometrial hyperplasia—An increase in the number of normal cells lining the uterus
  • Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension—High blood pressure
  • History of an inherited form of colon cancer
  • History of taking Tamoxifen for breast cancer treatment or prevention
  • Being Caucasian

Vaginal Cancer

The vagina is the passageway through which fluid passes out of the body during menstrual periods. It is also called the ‘birth canal.’ The vagina connects the cervix (the opening of the womb, or uterus) and the vulva (the external genitalia).

A rare kind of cancer in women, vaginal cancer is a disease in which malignant cells are found in the tissues of the vagina. The American Cancer Society estimates 2,000 cases of vaginal cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. Vaginal cancer accounts for only about 1 percent of cancers of the female reproductive system.

There are several types of cancer of the vagina. The two most common are squamous cell cancer (most often found in women between the ages of 60 and 80, and accounting for 85 to 90 percent of all vaginal cancers) and adenocarcinoma (more often found in women between the ages of 12 and 30, and accounting for 5 to 10 percent of all vaginal cancers).

Risk Factors

While the causes of vaginal cancer are not fully understood, researchers have found certain risk factors associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The risk factors for uterine cancer include:

  • Age—Half of women affected are older than 60, with most between ages 50 and 70
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) as a fetus—mother took DES during pregnancy. (DES is a drug once prescribed during pregnancy to prevent miscarriages or premature deliveries. DES is no longer prescribed because it is linked to a rare form a vaginal cancer.)
  • History of cervical cancer
  • History of cervical precancerous conditions
  • Infection of the human papillomavirus (HPV), most often the result of unprotected sex
  • Vaginal adenosis—A term used for a specific abnormality of the vagina. Those affected had mothers who took certain synthetic hormones during their pregnancy such as diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was used in the United States in the 1970s for women experiencing difficult pregnancies
  • Vaginal irritation
  • Uterine prolapse—This occurs when the uterus drops from its normal position in the pelvic cavity
  • Smoking

Vulvar Cancer

The vulva is the external portion of the female genital organs. It includes the labia majora (two large, fleshy lips, or folds of skin), vestibule (space where the vagina opens), prepuce (a fold of skin formed by the labia minora), clitoris (a small protrusion sensitive to stimulation), fourchette (area beneath the vaginal opening where the labia minora meet), perineum (area between the vagina and the anus), anus (opening at the end of the anal canal), and the urethra (connecting tube to the bladder).

Risk Factors

While the causes of vulvar cancer are not fully understood, researchers have found certain risk factors associated with the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The risk factors for vulvar cancer include:

  • Age—Risk increases after age 50
  • Chronic vulvar inflammation
  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), most often the result of unprotected sex
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection
  • Lichen sclerosus—A condition that can cause the vulval skin to become very itchy and may slightly increase the possibility of melanoma or atypical moles on non-vulvar skin
  • A family history of melanoma and/or dysplastic nevi—an unusual or atypical mole, which are pigmented lesions, often large, with irregular borders and tones of brown and tan
  • Vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN)—A condition which may increase a woman’s risk for vulvar cancer, although most cases do not progress to cancer
  • Other genital cancers
  • Smoking