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Female Reproductive Cancers

Quick Facts

What is it?

  • Reproductive cancers start in the organs related to reproduction (sex).
  • Some reproductive cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus that is spread during sexual contact.
  • The HPV vaccine protects against the HPV types that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
  • Each type of female reproductive cancer has different symptoms, so it is important to see a healthcare provider if you have concerns.
Risk factors include family history of cancer, age, and more.Symptoms vary among cancer types.Screening available for breast and cervical cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells in the body grow out of control. Cancers are named for the part of the body where they start.

What are female reproductive cancers?

Reproductive cancers are cancer that is in the organs related to reproduction. The most common reproductive cancers in women are:

  • Cervical cancer: Cancer of the cervix, the lower end of the uterus that extends to the vagina.
  • Ovarian cancer: Cancer in the ovaries, the two organs that make female hormones and produce a woman’s eggs.
  • Uterine cancer: Cancer in the uterus (womb), the organ where the baby grows when a woman is pregnant.
  • Vaginal cancer: Cancer of the vagina, the hollow channel that leads from the uterus and cervix to the outside of the body.
  • Vulvar cancer: Cancer of the vulva, the area around the opening of the vagina.

Breast cancer is sometimes considered a reproductive cancer. Breast cancer is in the tissues of the breast.

See more on the anatomy of the female reproductive system.

What are the early symptoms of female reproductive cancers?

Each type of female reproductive cancer has different symptoms, so pay attention to changes in your body and talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns. It is very important to see a healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms.

Cancer type Symptoms
Breast A lump in the breast.
Fluid coming out of nipple, especially if it is bloody.
Changes to skin of the breast or around the nipple.
Cervical Bleeding or discharge from the vagina sthat is not normal.
Bleeding after sex.
Usually no symptoms.
Ovarian Bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal.
Pressure or pain in the pelvic area.
Pressure or pain in the abdomen (belly) or back.
Feeling full quickly while eating.
Changes in bathroom habits (constipation, blood in urine or stool).
Uterine Bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal.
Pressure or pain in the pelvic area.
Bleeding after menopause.
Vaginal Bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal.
Vulvar Itching, bleeding, burning, a rash or sores around the opening of vagina that do not go away.
Changes in color of skin around the opening of the vagina.

What are the risk factors for female reproductive cancers?

A risk factor is the chance that something will harm or otherwise affect a person’s health. There are different risk factors that can increase the chances of developing female reproductive cancers. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will develop cancer. Some risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, family history, and your genetic makeup, while others are related to factors in the environment that may cause cancer. Some risk factors can be changed through your health habits.

This table shows the different risk factors associated with developing certain types of female reproductive cancers.

Cancer types Risk factors
Breast Being 55 years old or older.
Someone in your family having had breast cancer (for example, mother or a sister).
Drinking alcohol.
Cervical Smoking.
Having HIV or a weak immune system.
Persistence of high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV).
Ovarian Being 40 years or older.
Someone in your family having had cancer of the ovary, breast, or colon.
Being of Eastern European Jewish descent.
Never giving birth.
Uterine Being 50 years or older.
Being overweight.
Someone in your family having had cancer of the uterus, ovary, or colon.
Vaginal & Vulvar Having HPV.
Having cervical pre-cancer or cancer.
Having HIV or a weak immune system.

HPV is a virus that is spread during sexual contact. There are about 40 different strains (types) of HPV that can infect the genital area. About a dozen of these can cause cancer.
There are two types or strains of HPV:

  • Low-risk strains: Low-risk strains of HPV can cause warts on the genitals. Warts can be itchy, embarrassing, and unpleasant, but these strains are considered low risk because they do not cause cancer.
  • High-risk strains: High-risk strains do not cause warts but can, rarely, cause cancer. This is why they are called high-risk strains.

Most adults will have an HPV infection at some time during their lives. HPV infections almost always clear up on their own without treatment. A person with a high-risk strain of HPV that does not clear up on its own over many years could eventually get cancer.

A vaccine (shot) is available to prevent most high-risk HPV infections. It is best if the vaccine is received in childhood or early adolescence before a young woman begins having sex. It is also recommended for women up to age 26 who did not get the recommended doses when they were younger. Ask your healthcare provider about the HPV vaccine.

Are there tests to screen for reproductive cancers?

Annual well-woman visits to a healthcare provider can greatly increase the chances that reproductive cancers are identified early through regular exams and screening tests.

Many times people with early stages of reproductive cancer have no symptoms. A screening test is used to find a disease before the person has any symptoms. There are several screening tests available for some reproductive cancers.

There are screening tests for breast cancer and cervical cancer:

  • Mammogram: An x-ray test is used to screen for breast cancer. It is recommended that women between 50 and 74 years old at average risk for breast cancer get a mammogram every two years. Women who are 40 to 49 should talk to their healthcare provider about when to start and how often to get a mammogram.
  • Pap smear (or cervical cytology): A sample of cells is taken from the cervix during a pelvic exam to check for cervical cancer, pre-cancer, and HPV, which is the virus associated with causing most cervical cancers. Beginning at age 21, a woman should have a Pap smear every three years. Beginning at age 30, Pap smears are done along with an HPV test every five years.

There are no screening tests for other reproductive cancers. It is important to see a healthcare provider about any symptoms you experience. Finding cancers early can help increase the chance that treatment will be successful. Regular exams with a healthcare provider are recommended to help find cancers early, even if there are no symptoms.

Diagnostic tests can be used to find cancers in people who have symptoms. The type of diagnostic test used to find reproductive cancer depends on the type of cancer. These tests include:

  • Lab tests: Blood tests that sometimes show signs of cancer.
  • Tests that help healthcare providers “see” inside the body, such as:
    • X-ray.
    • Ultrasound.
    • MRI scan.
    • CT scan.
  • Biopsy: Procedure where a healthcare provider removes small a piece of tissue to check for cancer.

How are reproductive cancers treated?

The treatment depends on the type of cancer. Reproductive cancers are often treated with surgery, chemotherapy (medicine to kill cancer cells), hormone therapy (medicine to block hormones that are related to cancer growth), radiation, or a combination of these used together. An oncologist (cancer doctor) can help you select the best treatment(s) for the specific reproductive cancer.

Because reproductive cancers and their treatment can affect your ability to have children, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do if you hope to have children in the future.

Did You Know? (Female Reproductive Cancers)

Did You Know?

Did you know?Cervical cancer can be detected early with routine Pap tests.

Learn more about Pap Tests

Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on August 28, 2019