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Cervical cancer vs. ovarian cancer: What to know

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Cervical cancerOvarian cancerKey differencesSummary
Ovarian and cervical cancers are both types of cancer that affect the female reproductive system but in different organs. Symptoms of these cancers can look slightly different.
Medically reviewed by Faith Selchick, DNP, AOCNP
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on November 27, 2023

Ovarian and cervical cancers are cancers that can affect your reproductive system if you were assigned female at birth. While they can cause similar symptoms, they begin to develop in different organs.

Cervical cancer begins in your cervix, which is a passageway to the entrance of the uterus. Ovarian cancer affects your ovaries, which are tiny organs on either side of your uterus.

Both cancers can cause similar symptoms, but they affect different organs, and there are some differences.

Knowing more about the similarities and differences can help you seek the right treatment for you.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article uses the terms “women,” “men,” or both when discussing people assigned female or male at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials. 

While gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body, you may need to consider how your personal circumstances will affect diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment. Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

Cervical cancer

A group of older women sitting on sofas and chatting about ovarian cancer vs. cervical cancer.
Lucy Lambriex/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, around 11,500 people receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer in the United States. Cervical cancer begins to develop in the cervix.

This part of the female reproductive system connects with the upper end of the vagina and consists of a small and narrow passageway. This passageway further connects to the uterus at the other end.

Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • bleeding after sex
  • spotting between periods or after menopause
  • unusual discharge that may contain blood
  • discharge that has a strong odor
  • pelvic pain during sex
  • changes in bowel movements and urination
  • blood in urine
  • swollen legs

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), some less common symptoms of cervical cancer that may indicate that the cancer has advanced include:

  • fatigue and tiredness
  • pain in your abdomen
  • slight backache
  • bleeding from the rectum

Causes

According to the NCI, nearly all instances of cervical cancer are a result of an infection from human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV causes 9 out of every 10 cases of cervical cancer.

Thanks to the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer is no longer one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Getting your HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent developing cervical cancer. Gardasil 9 is an example of an HPV vaccine that protects against several forms of the virus.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), smoking and having a compromised immune system can also contribute to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Diagnosis and treatment

There’s a screening test for cervical cancer called a Pap smear, smear test, or Pap test. This test involves a healthcare professional taking a swab from your cervical lining. After analysis of this swab in a laboratory, they can determine if you have any atypical cell growth.

Doctors can order you to do a Pap smear alongside an HPV test, known as an HPV/Pap cotest.

The ACS guidance is to receive an HPV test or an HPV/Pap cotest every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years for people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 65 years.

A gynecologist will determine whether you need a follow-up test or treatment. These follow-up tests can include a physical exam, a colposcopy, or other imaging tests like X-rays. During a colposcopy, a healthcare professional may take a biopsy, a small section of tissue, for further testing.

If you receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer, a team of cancer care specialists will describe your treatment options. These will depend on your age, the severity of the condition, and your personal preferences.

These options typically include:

  • surgery
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • immunotherapy medications, like pembrolizumab (Keytruda)
  • targeted drug therapy medications like bevacizumab (Avastin)

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Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer initially develops in the ovaries and fallopian tubes, which connect the uterus to the ovaries. Most people who develop ovarian cancer are over the age of 63 years.

According to the ACS, nearly 20,000 women will receive a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2023. Around 1 in 78 women will experience ovarian cancer in their lifetime.

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Symptoms

Ovarian cancer can cause a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms you may notice include:

  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • urgent need to urinate
  • frequent urination
  • feeling full quicker than usual

Other symptoms may include:

  • extreme tiredness
  • pain during sex
  • irregularities in your menstrual cycle
  • swelling in your abdomen at the same time as weight loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • back pain

Causes

Researchers are still unsure about what causes someone to develop ovarian cancer. Some experts say that there is a relationship between ovulation and the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Reducing the number of times you ovulate may reduce your risk of developing ovarian cancer. Some of the following factors may lower your risk of developing ovarian cancer:

  • pregnancy
  • taking birth control
  • undergoing a hysterectomy

Researchers also believe genetic factors play a role in developing ovarian cancer (but not cervical cancer). If a woman inherits a certain gene variant, that may increase the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.

Diagnosis and treatment

If you experience symptoms of ovarian cancer, a doctor may perform a pelvic exam. If they find something unusual, they will recommend further tests.

You will take these tests under the guidance of a gynecologic oncologist specializing in female reproductive system cancers.

These tests typically include:

  • ultrasounds and computed tomography scans
  • laparoscopy, where a doctor looks at your ovaries through a small abdominal incision
  • biopsies, where a doctor takes a tissue sample from the unusual tumor for analysis
  • blood tests

The treatments for ovarian cancer depend on the type of cancer. However, the common treatments for ovarian cancer include:

  • surgery
  • local radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • hormone therapy
  • targeted drug therapy
  • immunotherapy

Key differences

The cervix and ovaries are located close to each other in the female reproductive system, so symptoms are often somewhat similar. According to the CDC, several symptoms of ovarian cancer are different from symptoms of cervical cancer. Some of them include:

  • constipation
  • pressure in the pelvis
  • bloating
  • back pain
  • feel full quicker than usual

Cervical cancer tests involve regular screening to prevent advanced stage cervical cancers from going undetected. Ovarian cancer testing does not include any screening tests.

Ovarian cancer may have a link with gene mutations, but we do not have similar evidence for cervical cancer.

Depending on the type of ovarian cancer, there is a better outlook for the 5-year survival rate of people with ovarian cancer than with cervical cancer. For example, 31% of people with distant invasive ovarian epithelial cancer live for at least 5 years after diagnosis, whereas only 17% of people with distant cervical cancer survive for 5 years after diagnosis.

Summary

Cervical and ovarian cancers both start to develop in the female reproductive system, but they can cause slightly different symptoms. They differ in their causes and how you may receive the diagnosis. Having said that, how doctors approach their treatment can be similar.

Both cancers have positive outlooks if localized, but cervical cancer has a higher mortality rate than ovarian cancer.

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