Cancer can occur in pretty much any part of the body you can name when cells grow out of control. The female reproductive system, although one of the most private parts of the body, is no exception.
Cancer in the uterus is “both common and, in many cases, curable,” according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The disease can occur in the tissue on the outside of the womb, but most uterine cancers start in its inner lining, in the cells that produce mucus and other fluids.
The Mayo Clinic says those latter cancers, called endometrial cancer, can often be detected early on — increasing the chance for survival — because “it frequently produces abnormal vaginal bleeding, which prompts women to see their doctors.” That abnormal bleeding can be between periods or after menopause. Other symptoms include pelvic pain and an “abnormal, watery or blood-tinged discharge from your vagina.”
Although removing the uterus may stop the cancer while it’s in its early stages, if left untreated it may spread to the cervix, which is the passageway to the vagina, and then to other body parts.
Most cervical cancers start in the “thin, flat cells that line the cervix,” according to the National Cancer Institute, and almost all of them can be traced back to long-lasting infections of some human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say — “so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.” Usually HPV goes away by itself and does not have negative health consequences, while in some people it can cause cervical cancer or genital warts. But there are vaccines to prevent the virus’ spread.
Like uterine cancers, cervical cancers can often be cured if they are detected early. The cancer may cause abnormal bleeding or discharge, bloating and pressure or pain in the area of the pelvis or back, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says.
Cancers in the two reproductive glands that produce eggs can start in any of the three types of cells found there, according to the American Cancer Society: those on its outer surface, which account for the majority of cases, as well as the cells that produce eggs and the cells in the tissue that holds the ovaries together and produce female hormones. “Most of these tumors are benign (non-cancerous) and never spread beyond the ovary” and can be treated with surgical removal, the group says. And even with malignant tumors, women are more likely to have symptoms like bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, appetite issues and menstrual changes if the cancer spreads to other body parts.
Unfortunately, the American Cancer Society says ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women, and the most fatal of the cancers in the reproductive system. “A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 75,” the group says. “Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 100.”