An Overview of Gynecologic Cancer

Types, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Gynecologic cancer is a group of cancers that affect the tissue and organs of the female reproductive system. Each type of cancer is named after the organ it originates. Types of gynecologic cancer include:

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

Causes and Risk Factors

The causes and risk factors of gynecologic cancer vary among the different types, but there are some common risks:

  • HPV infection
  • DES exposure (synthetic estrogen given to women before 1971 during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage, but ultimately causing health risks to the expectant mother and daughters/son they carried)
  • smoking
  • HIV/AIDS infection

There are also gynecologic risk factors that we have no control over like age, race, and family history of certain diseases and conditions that elevate our risk. A risk factor is not a prerequisite to developing a disease; some women will still develop gynecologic cancer despite not having any risk factor for it.


Symptoms of gynecologic cancer vary, depending on the type of cancer. A broad spectrum of gynecologic cancer symptoms may include:

  • Pelvic pain
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal bleeding during or after sexual intercourse
  • Persistent abdominal swelling or bloating
  • Unintended weight gain or loss
  • Persistent bowel changes, like diarrhea or constipation

These are common symptoms of gynecologic cancer, but there are more symptoms that relate specifically to each type.


How gynecologic cancer is diagnosed depends on what type of cancer is suspected. Pelvic exams, colposcopy exams, imaging tests, biopsies, and possibly even diagnostic surgery are all methods of diagnosing gynecologic cancer.
Once cancer is confirmed, the stage of the cancer is then determined and a treatment plan is developed. Staging refers to how far cancer has spread to nearby tissue or organs.


Treatment for gynecologic cancer depends on the type of cancer, stage, and other general health factors. Common methods of treating gynecologic include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.


Prevention tactics differ among the types of gynecologic cancer because each specific cancer possesses its own causes and risk factors. There are some common risk factors for some gynecologic cancers in which we can reduce our risk. To reduce our risk of gynecologic cancer, you can:

Reduce Your HPV Risk 

Limiting your exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV) may also decrease the risk of cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus that in some cases when left undetected or untreated, may progress into cervical cancer.

Get a Regular Pap Smear 

Getting a regular Pap smear is a highly effective way to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. The Pap smear is a simple test that can detect abnormal cervical changes long before they become cancerous. The key to the effectiveness of the Pap smear is having it done regularly. How often you need a Pap smear varies from woman to woman, based on age, previous pap smear results, and your cervical cancer risk factor. Always consult with your healthcare provider about how often you should be having Pap smears.

Avoid Smoking 

Since we know that tobacco use is linked to some types of gynecologic cancer, avoiding smoking is a good risk reduction strategy. Quitting smoking may reduce your risk of not only gynecologic cancer but many other types of diseases and conditions as well.

Have Surgery If Recommended by Your Healthcare Provider 

Women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer may have the option of having a prophylactic oophorectomy, surgical removal of one or both ovaries. This is not a standard prevention method and is only available to women whose increased risk has been confirmed through genetic testing. Studies also suggest tubal ligation reduces a woman's ovarian cancer risk, but the procedure is never done solely to prevent it. It is simply an added benefit of the surgery.

Remember, some women still develop gynecologic cancer despite avoiding the risks. Risk reduction is effective but is not a guaranteed method of prevention.

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By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.