About GYN Cancer
Female Reproductive System and Cancer
The female reproductive anatomy includes parts inside and outside the body. The external parts are together referred to as the vulva and they include:
- The labia majora: Latin for “large lips,” they enclose and protect the other external reproductive organs. They are relatively large and fleshy and contain sweat- and oil-secreting glands.
- The labia minora: Latin for “small lips,” they can be very small or up to two inches wide. Lying just inside the labia majora, they surround the opening to the vagina and urethra (which carries urine from the bladder out of the body).
- Bartholin’s Glands: Located beside the vaginal opening, they produce a fluid (mucus) secretion.
- The Clitoris: A small, sensitive protrusion located where the labia minora meet toward the front of the body, the clitoris is covered by a fold of skin, called the prepuce, and is very sensitive to stimulation.
The female internal reproductive organs include:
- The Vagina: Also known as the birth canal, it joins the cervix and uterus to the outside of the body.
- The Uterus: A hollow, pear-shaped organ that is divided into two parts. The cervix, or the lower part of the uterus, opens into the vagina, allowing sperm to enter the uterus, or menstrual blood to exit. The main body of the uterus, called the corpus, can expand to hold a developing fetus. The inner membrane of the uterus is called the endometrium.
- The Ovaries: Small, oval glands located on either side of the uterus, the ovaries produce eggs and hormones.
- The Fallopian Tubes: Attached to the upper part of the uterus, these serve as tunnels for the ova (egg cells) to travel from the ovaries to the uterus.
How cancer grows
Healthy cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body, including the female reproductive system, needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die and new cells are formed to take their place. Sometimes when this orderly process goes wrong, new cells develop when the body does not need them and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. Extra cells may form a mass of tissue called a tumor. Tumor cells can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
Cancers occurring in the female reproductive system are called gynecologic cancers, and include cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancer. Once present, gynecologic cancers can spread, or metastasize, in the following basic ways:
Cancerous tumors, left unchecked, can grow into adjacent structures. This type of cancer spread may occur in all types of gynecologic cancers.
The lymphatic system carries lymph, which is a fluid that contains tissue waste products and immune system cells. Cancer cells may enter lymph vessels and spread out to reach the lymph nodes. Small and bean-shaped, the lymph nodes’ role is collecting immune stem cells that are important in fighting infections. When cancer cells reach the lymph nodes they can continue to grow and are more likely to spread to other organs and areas of the body. This type of cancer spread occurs in all gynecologic cancers
In this type of cancer spread, cancer cells penetrate the walls of the blood vessels, after which they are able to circulate through the bloodstream (circulating tumor cells) to other sites and tissues in the body where they can grow additional tumors. This type of cancer spread can occur in all gynecologic cancers.