Gynecologic cancer refers to any cancers that originate in the female reproductive system. This includes vaginal cancer, ovarian cancer, and vulvar cancer, but the two most common forms of gynecological cancer are uterine and cervical cancer.
The two can be easy to mix up, partly because of their proximity. Though they fulfill entirely different functions, the cervix and uterus are connected to each other, so any changes to one will naturally affect the other. Still, knowing the difference between the two is essential to understanding the type of treatment necessary and the outcomes. Learn more about cervical cancer vs uterine cancer below.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer refers to any cancer that starts in the cells of the cervix. The cervix is part of the reproductive system, connecting the main body of the uterus to the vagina. Much like other forms of cancer, cervical cancer is categorized by the type of cell affected. About nine out of ten cases of cervical cancer are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer affects the cells that make up the lining of the cervix. Most other types of cervical cancer are adenocarcinomas. This form affects the gland cells responsible for producing mucus and other fluids within the cervix. In rare cases, cancer may affect both types of cells. This is known as mixed carcinoma or adenosquamous carcinoma.
While cervical cancer was once one of the deadliest cancers in the United States, the death rate has dropped significantly over the years and continues to decrease year to year. Much of this comes from advancements in medical technology and improvements in screening and testing procedures. When it comes to cervical cancer, this can make one question if pregnancy is possible with this cancer type. So, can you get pregnant if you have cervical cancer? The answer to this varies on the different cancer treatment options received.
Symptoms of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer can be difficult to identify based on symptoms alone. In its early stages, cervical cancer rarely presents with any noticeable symptoms, and symptoms that do appear are often easy to mistake for other common conditions. It typically does not present any signs and symptoms until the cancer has progressed to more advanced stages. It’s very important to get regular cervical cancer screening to detect it early on.
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge that may contain blood
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding that may occur after sex, between periods, or after menopause
- Menstrual periods that are longer or heavier
- Painful sex
- General pain in the pelvis
In more advanced stages, cervical cancer may also present with:
- Swelling in the legs
- Blood in your urine
- General problems with bowel movements and urination
What Is Uterine Cancer?
Uterine cancer refers to any cancer that affects the uterus. The uterus is a hollow organ located above the cervix. The uterus is essentially responsible for housing a developing fetus when you get pregnant. While the uterus and cervix are connected, doctors do make a difference between cancers affecting one or the other.
While there are a handful of different forms of uterine cancer, the vast majority of cases affect the endometrium. This is the inner lining of the uterus. During your menstrual cycle, hormones cause the endometrium to thicken, allowing for a safe cushion and ideal environment for a fertilized egg to attach itself. If you do not get pregnant during your cycle, hormones cause the body to expel the excess endometrial tissue and blood from your body, which makes up the fluids shed during your period.
Endometrial cancer can be further broken down by the specific cells involved, including adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.
Symptoms of Uterine Cancer
Similar to cervical cancer, uterine cancer (or endometrial cancer) generally does not present noticeable symptoms. Symptoms that do occur tend to appear only after the cancer has advanced.
The most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding. About 90 percent of people with endometrial cancer present with this, which may include:
- A change in their regular periods
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Bleeding after menopause
You may also experience a general abnormal discharge. If you do experience any discharge, even without any blood, you should consult your doctor.
You may also experience pelvic pain and unintended weight loss. Some people may actually feel a mass or tumor in their pelvic region. These symptoms are usually more common in later stages of the disease.
Cervical Cancer vs. Uterine Cancer
These two cancers do have quite a bit of overlap, thanks in part to the proximity of the organs and tissues involved. Both cancers present with abnormal vaginal bleeding and discharge, and both tend to be more common in older age. However, these two forms of cancer do have their differences.
Cancer in general is caused by genetic mutations that result in the uncontrolled growth of cells. Research still does not know what specifically causes this genetic mutation, and that extends to both cervical and uterine cancer.
However, evidence does show that infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is closely associated with cervical cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, so much so that anyone who is sexually active will likely contract an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
This does not mean that every HPV case will automatically result in cervical cancer. Many people with HPV don’t present with any symptoms and get better on their own. However, many cases of cervical cancer have been linked to HPV infections.
Prevention and Detection
Related to the above, cervical cancer has become less of a problem specifically because it is easier to identify and prevent with regular screening and testing. HPV tests look specifically for HPV infections, while Pap tests allow your doctor to detect abnormal cells in the cervix. This allows for early detection of precancer or cervical cancer. The earlier you diagnose any form of cancer, the better the outcome.
Uterine cancer does not generally have any existing screening procedures. However, endometrial cancer is often detected early because the abnormal bleeding is hard to ignore.
The two forms of cancer do have some slight overlap in terms of treatment. Surgery tends to be the most common form of treatment. Surgery for both focuses on removing cancer cells and typically nearby tissue. For uterine cancer, surgery most commonly involves a hysterectomy, which involves removing the uterus, fallopian tubes, and potentially the ovaries. While this can effectively treat the cancer, it may cause early menopause. Removal of the uterus and ovaries also means that getting pregnant is impossible.
Cervical cancer may also be treated with a hysterectomy, but depending on the extent of the cancer and the size of the growth, the doctor may be able to treat it with a trachelectomy, which removes just the cervix and some surrounding tissue. If the cancer is small enough, the doctor may be able to remove the cancer cells alone while leaving the rest of the cervix intact. In both cases, you can still get pregnant following surgery as the uterus is left untouched.
Other treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy, which can have varying side effects.
Uterine and cervical cancer have their distinctions, and it’s important to talk to your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis for effective treatment. Perhaps the most heartening thing that the two cancers share is that they have fairly high survival rates, but much of that depends on finding and identifying the cancer as soon as possible. Be sure to get cervical screening or see a doctor right away when experiencing symptoms of either cancer type. You can also visit the Immunity Therapy Center for the different cancer treatment options available for each one.
- CDC. Gynecologic Cancer Incidence, United States—2012–2016. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/uscs/about/data-briefs/no11-gynecologic-cancer-incidence-UnitedStates-2012-2016.htm
- Cancer.org. What Is Cervical Cancer? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/about/what-is-cervical-cancer.html
- Cancer.org. Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html
- Cancer.org. What Is Endometrial Cancer? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/endometrial-cancer/about/what-is-endometrial-cancer.html
- Cancer.org. Signs and Symptoms of Endometrial Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/endometrial-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.