Cancer of the fallopian tubes is rare. Only around 1 in 100 cancers (1%) of the female reproductive system are this type.
Although figures indicate that fallopian tube cancer is rare, doctors now think that many of the most common type of epithelial ovarian cancers (high grade serous type) actually start in the far end of the fallopian tube, rather than the surface of the ovary.
The fallopian tubes
The fallopian tubes link the ovaries to the womb. During a woman’s childbearing years, the ovaries produce an egg each month. The egg travels through the fallopian tubes to the womb. A baby will begin to develop in the womb if the egg is fertilised by a sperm.
The diagram below shows where the fallopian tubes are.
Risks and causes
We don’t know the exact cause of fallopian tube cancer.
Risk factors are things that might increase a person’s risk of developing a cancer. Some possible risk factors have been suggested for fallopian tube cancer, including a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, and chronic infection.
A family history of ovarian or breast cancer
Having 2 or more of your very close relatives who have had ovarian cancer could increase your risk of fallopian tube cancer.
A very close relative means your:
Doctors have identified 2 genes that cause ovarian and fallopian tube cancer. These are the BRCA genes.
Researchers think that the faulty BRCA gene might cause around 16 out of 100 cancers (16%) of the fallopian tube.
Doctors have linked chronic infection of the reproductive system with fallopian tube cancer.
But no research has confirmed this as a cause.
The symptoms of cancer of the fallopian tube are similar to the symptoms of ovarian cancer. They are often quite vague, particularly if the disease is in its early stages.
The symptoms might include:
- vaginal bleeding not related to your periods
- a watery vaginal discharge that may contain blood
- abdominal pain which is often colicky (comes in spasms)
- a swollen abdomen
The most common type of fallopian tube cancer is an adenocarcinoma.
Adenocarcinomas of the fallopian tubes start in the epithelial cells. These cells are part of the lining of the fallopian tubes.
Other types of fallopian tube cancer are very rare and include:
- transitional cell – transitional cells are stretchy cells found in the fallopian tube lining
- sarcoma – this affects the muscular part of the fallopian tube
Tests to diagnose
Fallopian tube cancer can be hard to diagnose. If you have symptoms your doctor will examine you and may use the following tests to help make a diagnosis.
If you have symptoms of pain or abnormal bleeding, the first thing your doctor is likely to do is to examine your abdomen. They will press gently on the outside of your abdomen to feel for any lumps, or tender areas.
Your doctor may also want to examine you internally. This is to see if your womb and ovaries feel normal. Your doctor will ask you to lie on your back on the couch with your feet drawn up and your knees apart. They will then put one or two gloved fingers into your vagina at the same time as pressing down on your abdomen with the other hand. If any part of your reproductive system is swollen, or if a mass of any kind is there, your doctor may be able to feel it.
You might need to have an ultrasound scan to help diagnose your cancer. An ultrasound uses sound waves to build up a picture of a part of the body. You might have an abdominal ultrasound or a transvaginal ultrasound.
Your doctor may want you to have a CT scan or MRI scan to check if the cancer has spread within your abdomen.
Fallopian tube cancers often produce chemicals that show up in a blood test. Doctors call these tumour markers.
The marker that doctors look for in fallopian tube cancer is called CA125. A raised level of CA125 can suggest either fallopian tube cancer or ovarian cancer. But it can be raised for other reasons, such as:
- pelvic inflammatory disease
Treatment and trials
Doctors treat fallopian tube cancer in a very similar way to ovarian cancer.
Surgeons try to remove all of the tumour, or as much of it as possible. If your surgeon can't remove all of the cancer, your specialist is likely to suggest that you have chemotherapy after your surgery.
You may also have chemotherapy if all of the cancer was removed. This is to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.
The chemotherapy drugs used are generally the same as for ovarian cancer. Common drugs include carboplatin and paclitaxel.
Fallopian tube cancers are usually included in ovarian cancer trials. If you are interested in finding out about trials for this type of cancer, you can look at the ovarian cancer trials in our clinical trials database.
Coping with a rare condition can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. Being well informed about your condition and its treatment can help you to make decisions and cope with what happens.
It can also help to talk to other people who have the same thing. But it can be hard to find people who have had a rare type of cancer.
Cancer Research UK’s discussion forum is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.
You may also find it helpful to contact the Rare Cancer Alliance, who offer support and information to people who have rare cancers.