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This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Ruchi Garg, MD, CTCA Program Director, Gynecologic Oncology.

This page was reviewed on November 17, 2021.

Cancer symptoms women shouldn’t ignore

If you have a uterus, cervix, ovaries, vagina and/or vulva, you may experience occasional pain, discomfort and discharge. But some of these symptoms—especially when they’re new, persistent (lasting longer than a couple of weeks) or keep getting worse—may be signs you should get checked out by your doctor. They may be warning signs of a cancer of the reproductive system, which may be even more concerning if you have a family history of gynecologic cancers or other risk factors.

Cancer is a disease characterized by cellular changes that make cells grow out of control. That out-of-control growth turns these cells into masses, called tumors, that may interfere with the body’s ability to do its normal functions.

Often, cancer shares the same vague symptoms as other health problems and normal pains of daily life. Many cancer symptoms are commonly felt, and most of the time they’re not due to undiagnosed cancer. Paying attention to these symptoms is key, because catching cancer before it advances gives you a better chance of surviving.

What symptoms should you watch for in cancers of the uterus, cervix, ovaries, breast, vagina and vulva? These cancers may develop in anyone with these organs.  

Types of female cancers

Every organ of the female reproductive system may become cancerous. When grouped, these are called gynecologic cancers. Starting from the most common, these include:

  • Uterine cancer: The uterus is where a fetus grows and develops. Each menstrual cycle, the uterus sheds its lining, leading to the monthly bleeding, called a period. The lining of the uterus is called the endometrium, and cancer that forms in this lining is referred to as endometrial cancer, which is the most common type of uterine cancer, accounting for more than 90 percent of cases. About 65,950 new uterine cancer cases are estimated in the United States in 2022. Overall, endometrial cancer of all stages has an 84 percent five-year relative survival rate.
  • Ovarian cancer: The ovaries (usually there are two) are near the uterus. They store and send eggs for fertilization. The United States is expected to have about 19,880 new cases of ovarian cancer in 2022. The five-year relative survival rate is 49 percent.
  • Cervical cancer: The cervix is the opening of the uterus, where it connects to the vagina. There will be about 14,100 new cervical cancer cases in the United States in 2022 Cervical cancer has a 66 percent five-year relative survival rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 93 percent of these cancers are preventable with screenings with a Pap smear and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
  • Vaginal cancer: The vagina is the connection between the external genitalia and the uterus. In 2022, about 8,870 cases of vaginal cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States. The five-year relative survival rate is 49 percent.
  • Vulvar cancer: The vulva is the external genitalia, which includes the opening of the vagina and the tissue around it. It is the least common of these cancers. In 2022, about 6,330 new cases of vulvar cancer are expected in the United States. It has a 71 percent five-year relative survival rate.

Breast cancer

While not a gynecologic cancer, breast cancer affects mostly females, and is the most common cancer among U.S. women, aside from skin cancer. Doctors are expected to diagnose about 339,250 new female breast cancer cases in the United States in 2022. Breast cancer has a 90 percent five-year relative survival rate, which means 90 percent of people diagnosed with this cancer are still alive five years later.

Cancer symptoms to watch for

The signs of cancer in women may range dramatically, and depend on the type of cancer and each patient’s personal situation. But some cancer symptoms women should watch for are listed below.

Changes to your vaginal bleeding or discharge

Changes to vaginal bleeding or discharge may be a sign of cancer—specifically cervical, ovarian, tubal, uterine or vaginal cancers. Changes in vaginal discharge or bleeding may be difficult to detect, but they tend to include:

  • Heavier periods
  • Longer periods
  • Unusual bleeding between periods
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Any bleeding after menopause
  • Any bleeding that’s not normal or expected
  • Discharge that’s not normal or expected

Changes to your breasts

Changes to your breasts may be signs of breast cancer, such as:

  • Lump or firm feeling in the breast or under the arm
  • Thicker-feeling or swollen breast
  • Changes to or discharge from your nipple
  • Breast skin that’s itchy, red, scaly, flaky, dimpled or puckered

Unusual, sudden or increasing pain

If you’re at high risk for gynecologic cancers, there are several areas of the body you should be monitoring. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area (below the stomach, between the hip bones), especially when you urinate or during sex
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Breast pain

Abdominal discomfort and bloating

  • A not-quite-right feeling of discomfort in the abdomen or bloating
  • Enlarged stomach (distention of the abdomen)
  • Early satiety (feeling full quickly when eating, or being unable to eat as much)

Changes in urination

Changes during bathroom trips may be a symptom of ovarian, vaginal or vulvar cancers. These may include:

  • More frequent urination than normal
  • Urgent need to urinate
  • Blood in your urine

Changes in bowel movements

Changes in your bowel movements may include:

  • Constipation
  • Blood in your stool

Changes to your vulva

Changes to the external genitalia may include:

  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Pain
  • Tenderness on or around the opening of the vagina
  • Changes to skin texture on or around the opening of the vagina, such as rashes, sores, ulcers or warts

General symptoms of cancer

Cancer symptoms vary widely based on the affected area, the tumor’s growth and other aspects. General cancer symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Bleeding or bruising without a known cause
  • Persistent cough or hoarseness
  • Eating problems, including trouble swallowing, nausea, vomiting or appetite changes
  • Severe and lasting fatigue 
  • Unexplained fever or night sweats 
  • White or red patch on the tongue or mouth
  • Bleeding, pain or numbness in the lip or mouth
  • Neurological problems, including headaches, seizures, vision changes, hearing changes or drooping of the face
  • Skin changes, including a flesh-colored lump that bleeds or turns scaly, a new mole or a change in an existing mole, or a sore that doesn’t heal
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Swelling or lumps anywhere, such as in the neck, underarm, stomach and groin
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss

When to see your doctor

Most of these symptoms are common and likely due to other conditions. Still, you should inform your doctor if the symptoms are new, persistent (lasting longer than two weeks) or become more noticeable.

If you’re postmenopausal and experience any vaginal bleeding, alert your doctor right away.

Four ways women can reduce their cancer risk

  1. Pay attention to body changes. While each cancer is different, catching it early is important. Lower the risk of being diagnosed with advanced cancer by paying attention to your body and knowing what’s normal for you. Make sure you’re checking with your doctor if something’s out of the ordinary.
  2. Get vaccinated. Getting the HPV vaccine may prevent cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers and other cancers and illnesses caused by HPV.
  3. Know your family history. Ask your relatives about their health histories—and if cancers run in your family, keep a close eye on these symptoms and consider asking your doctor about genetic testing.
  4. Get screenings. Schedule a regular Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer. If your doctor recommends other regular screenings, make sure you stay on top of those.

Read more about how gynecologic oncologists assess cancer risk and treat cancers affecting women.

Expert cancer care

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