Gynecologic cancers account for approximately 13% of all cancers that affect women. They are responsible for 10% of the cancer deaths among women.
The female reproductive tract is comprised of the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and vulva. Together, these organs allow a woman to become pregnant, protect and nourish an unborn baby, and to give birth. An understanding of each organ and its role in reproduction may help the patient to understand her particular gynecologic cancer. There are two ovaries, which are the internal organs dedicated to producing eggs. Released eggs are captured by the fallopian tubes, through which the egg (or fertilized egg) travels to the womb (uterus). The lining of the uterus (endometrium) responds to female hormones, such as estrogen, and becomes thickened to allow for implantation of a fertilized egg. The cervix is the opening of the uterus which opens (dilates) during labor to allow for passage of the baby. The vagina is a short tube that extends from the outer female genitalia (vulva) to the cervix.
Gynecologic cancers are defined not solely by the organ affected but also by the type of cancerous cells in the tumor. The type of cancer depends on the cell types that make up an organ. Adenocarcinomas are cancers that contain primarily cells originating from glands or ducts. Squamous cell carcinomas are tumors that arose from squamous cells, the main cell type found in skin. Sarcomas are cancers that originated from cells of basic connective tissue (mesenchymal cells). Sarcomas are comprised of cells that have become specialized (differentiated) and are named according to the predominant cell type. Endometroid tumors are those that originated from the endometrium. Clear-cell carcinoma is a rare gynecologic tumor that contains cells from the mullerian duct, which gives rise to the uterus, vagina, and fallopian tubes during development.
Because the reproductive organs are interconnected, spread of cancer from one organ to another (direct extension) is not uncommon. Gynecologic cancer carries the
name of the organ where the cancer originated (primary cancer site). For example, a tumor restricted to the vagina would be "primary vaginal cancer, " whereas one that has extended from the cervix to the vagina would be "primary cervical cancer."
Belinda Rowland Ph.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,