Gynaecological cancers are cancers of the female reproductive system that develop when abnormal cells grow in an uncontrolled manner. According to Cancer Council Australia, on average, 12 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer every day in Australia, with ovarian cancer being the most common cause of gynaecological cancer deaths, followed by uterine cancer and cervical cancer¹.
As a woman of reproductive age, it’s not only important but necessary to know about the five types of gynaecological cancers and warning signs to look out for.
What are the 5 gynaecological cancers?
There are five main types of gynaecological cancer: ovarian, uterine, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal. Each type arises from a different area of the female reproductive system and has its own set of symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.
Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer affecting Australian women, with 1,400 new cases diagnosed in Australia each year².
The ovaries are a pair of small organs located on the side of the uterus that produce eggs and hormones. Ovarian cancer can involve a malignant tumour in one or both of the ovaries or in the fallopian tubes.
Due to its aggressive nature, ovarian cancer is responsible for the highest mortality of all gynaecologic cancers in Australia. Often, for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the cancer remains undetectable until it has spread, at which point it becomes too difficult to treat.
Factors that may increase ovarian cancer risk include age (50 years or older), family history of cancer, changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, early onset of the menstrual cycle, late onset of menopause, and women who have had no children or had their first child after the age of 35.
On the flip side, some factors that may reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer include using oral contraceptives for several years, having your fallopian tubes tied or removed, and having children before the age of 35.
Ovarian cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore
Sometimes there are no obvious signs of ovarian cancer; however, symptoms that may signal ovarian cancer can include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Ongoing abdominal pain
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Constant pelvic pain
- Back pain
- Frequent or urgent urination
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Irregularities in menstrual cycles
- Persistent indigestion or nausea
- Tiredness or constant fatigue
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
Keep in mind that these symptoms are often non-specific and may be attributed to other conditions. See your doctor if you are concerned.
Uterine cancer is the most diagnosed form of gynaecological cancer in Australia, affecting an estimated 3267 people in 2021³.
Cancer of the uterus – also known as uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, womb cancer, or cancer of the lining of the womb – is a type of cancer that occurs when abnormal cells develop in any part of the uterus and grow out of control to form a lump called a tumour.
There are two main types of uterine cancer: endometrial cancer and uterine sarcomas. Endometrial cancer begins in the lining of the uterus – the endometrium – whereas uterine sarcomas are a rarer form that develops in the muscle tissue – the myometrium.
Uterine cancer is interchangeably called endometrial cancer as this is the most common form, accounting for about 95% of all cases³.
Uterine cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore
Women diagnosed with uterine or endometrial cancer may experience the following symptoms:
- Abnormal bleeding
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Periods that continue without a break
- Watery and/or smelly discharge
- Unexplained weight loss (if you suddenly lose substantial weight without changing exercise habits)
- Pain in the pelvis or abdominal area
- Difficulty urinating
- Changes in bowel movements
While these symptoms may be caused by other reasons, they can signal gynecologic cancers, and you should see your doctor if you are concerned.
Each year around 910 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia⁴.
Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
The most common type of cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, and it accounts for 70% of cases, whereas adenocarcinoma is a rarer form of cervical cancer, accounting for about 25% of cases⁴.
Since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991 and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine in 2007, the incidence of cervical cancer has significantly decreased, making it one form of cancer to be less worried about, provided you take measures to detect it early.
Cervical cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore
It is rare for precancerous changes in cervical cells to cause noticeable symptoms. The only guaranteed way to know if abnormal cells exist in the cervix is to have a cervical screening test.
Nonetheless, the following symptoms could be a warning sign of cervical cancer or other cancers and should always be taken seriously:
- Unusual bleeding
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Heavy bleeding
- Menstrual bleeding that is longer than normal
- Painful intercourse
- Pelvic pain
- Changes in vaginal discharge
- Post-menopausal bleeding
- Constantly needing bathroom breaks ( do you feel continuous bladder pressure?)
- Swollen leg or legs
If you are worried about these symptoms or other cervical cancer symptoms, see your primary care doctor.
It is estimated that there will be 390 new cases of vulvar cancer diagnosed in Australia each year⁵.
Vulvar cancer is a type of cancer that affects any part of the vulva (the external female sex organs) however, it most commonly develops in the labia minora (inner lips), the labia majora (outer lips), and the perineum (the delicate skin area between the vagina and the anus).
There are several different types of vulvar cancer, with squamous cell carcinoma being the most common type, accounting for about 90% of all incidences of vulvar cancer in Australia⁵.
Although vulvar cancer is not common, anyone with a vulva can be diagnosed with vulvar cancer, including women, transgender men, and intersex people. It most commonly affects older women who have undergone menopause.
Vulvar cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore
Symptoms of vulvar cancer differ from ovarian or endometrial cancer and may include:
- Itchiness, burning, soreness or pain in the vulva
- Abnormal lumps, swelling, or growths in the vulva
- A mole on the vulva that changes appearance (in shape or colour)
- Thickened patches of skin in the vulva
- Abnormal vaginal discharge, with blood or pus
- Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area
If you experience any pain in your genital area or notice any unusual symptoms (no matter how vague symptoms may be), visit your general practitioner (GP).
Each year in Australia, about 100 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancers⁶.
Primary vaginal cancer is any cancer that begins in the vagina – the internal female sex organ. It is not to be confused with cancer that has spread to the vagina from another part of the body. This form of vaginal cancer is known as secondary vaginal cancer.
There are several types of vaginal cancer, with squamous cell carcinoma being the most common type, accounting for about 85% of cases⁶.
Although vaginal cancer is one of the rarest types of gynaecological cancers, anyone with a vagina can be diagnosed with vaginal cancer, including women, transgender men, and intersex people. Vaginal cancer typically affects women over the age of 60; however, vaginal cancer known as adenocarcinoma can sometimes occur in younger women.
Vaginal cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore
There are often no obvious signs of vaginal cancer; however, symptoms may include:
- Pelvic pain
- Pain in the rectum
- A lump or abnormal growth in the vagina
- Blood in urine
- Changes in urinary habits
- Changes in urine colour (dark, rusty, or brown)
- Bloody vaginal discharge not related to the menstrual cycle
- Pain during intercourse
- Irregular bleeding during or after intercourse
Breast cancer is another common type of cancer that affects women, and most breast cancers are detected by women during self-checks at home.
Find out how to self-check your breasts for cancer risk.
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Gynaecological Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/gynaecological-cancer/
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Ovarian Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/ovarian-cancer/
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Uterine Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/uterine-cancer/
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Cervical Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/cervical-cancer/
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Vulvar Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/vulvar-cancer/
- Cancer Council Australia. (2021). Vaginal Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/vaginal-cancer/