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Female Sexuality and Cancer

Overview of Female Anatomy

This information will help you understand the female reproductive system (before treatment) and some of the words your doctor or healthcare provider might use.

The reproductive system is made up of the breasts and the genitals (internal and external).

The Breasts

A breast is made up of several parts.

  • Inside the breast are glands, ducts, and fatty tissue. When a woman is pregnant or has had a baby, the glands contain milk to feed the baby.
  • On the outside of the breast is the areola, which is a round, darker spot of skin. It can be dark brown, red, or pink. There are little bumps on the surface of the areola.
  • The nipple sticks out from the center of the areola. It’s made up of many tiny openings.

The breasts are full of nerve endings—​especially the nipple. When it’s touched in a sexual way, it can feel good and make you feel turned on (sexually aroused).

Female Genitals on the Outside (External)

The external genitals include the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, the vestibule, clitoris, hymen, and perineum. Together, the external genitals are called the vulva. The size and shape of every woman’s genitals is different. Some parts of the genitals have lots of nerve endings. When touched for pleasure, blood flow to the area increases and this can lead to feeling aroused.​


The external genitals include:

  • The mons pubis is a rounded mass of tissue over the pubic bone. It’s covered by skin and pubic hair.
  • The labia majora (outer lips) are the two large folds of skin that normally come together in the middle. This protects the openings to the vagina and the urethra (part of the urinary system). Hair grows on the outside of the labia majora, but the inner surfaces are smooth.
  • The labia minora (inner lips) are the two inner folds of skin. They have many nerves and blood vessels, which get bigger and spread apart when a woman is aroused.
  • The vestibule is the area of the vulva where the openings to the vagina and urinary system are. The opening of the vagina may be partly covered by a thin membrane called the hymen. The hymen protects the vagina from infection before puberty.
  • The clitoris is the most sensitive part of the genitals. It’s at the top of the vulva, just under where the top of the inner lips meet. It looks like a tiny pea and may be covered by skin called the clitoral hood. The clitoris has lots of nerve endings and is made up of tissue that fills with blood when a woman gets aroused. Many women need to have the clitoris stimulated to reach orgasm.
  • The perineum is the skin between the bottom of the labia and the opening to the rectum (anus). The perineum and the anus have lots of nerve endings.

Female Genitals on the Inside (Internal)


  • The vagina starts at the opening (called the vestibule) and goes to the bottom of the uterus. The opening of the uterus is called the cervix.
  • When aroused, the vagina gets longer and wider. The vagina can change size to fit closely around a tampon, a finger, a sexual toy, a penis during intercourse, or even a baby during childbirth. When not aroused, the walls of the vagina collapse.
  • The pelvic floor muscles support (but aren’t part of) the vagina. These muscles contract when a woman is aroused or having an orgasm.
  • The inside of the vagina is like the inside of the mouth. The glands inside the vagina make drops of lubricating fluid to keep it moist. When a woman is aroused, more of this fluid is made.
  • The bottom part of the vagina has more nerves and is very sensitive. The top of the vagina has only a few nerves and isn’t as sensitive.
  • Some researchers say there is an area that’s very sensitive on the front lower part of the vagina called the G-spot. During intercourse or penetration (e.g., a finger, sexual toy or object), this bottom part of the vagina is very sensitive to pressure and touch.


The uterus is at the top of the vagina, above the cervix. When not pregnant, a woman’s uterus is about the same size as a closed fist. The uterus has three layers:

  • outer layer, which is elastic and stretches during pregnancy
  • middle layer, which is muscle—this layer makes contractions during childbirth and contracts during an orgasm for some women
  • inner layer, which builds up each month with blood and tissue—this tissue sheds each month during a woman’s period

Fallopian Tubes, Ovaries, and Hormones

  • The top of the uterus opens into two fallopian tubes. At the other end of each tube is an ovary.
  • The ovary produces and stores eggs. When a female reaches puberty, usually one egg is released during each menstrual cycle. It travels down the fallopian tube, and may be fertilized as it travels to the uterus. A fertilized egg will attach to the inner layer of the uterus. Unfertilized eggs break down and are shed away with the lining of the uterus each month during your period. The ovaries make two hormones (estrogen and progesterone).

Estrogen helps keep the vagina moist and stretchy. Most experts agree that the hormone estrogen doesn’t control sex drive. If the ovaries are removed, it isn’t likely to affect sex drive or the ability to have an orgasm. The hormone that affects sex drive in men and women is called testosterone. In men, most testosterone is made by the testicles. In women, half is produced by the ovaries and the other half is made by the adrenal glands, which are above the kidneys. Hormones are controlled by the brain. When a woman goes through menopause, estrogen decreases, which may make the vagina and vulva less healthy and less moist. Many women get vaginal discomfort and dryness. This can be managed with topical hormonal replacement (using estrogen), or with non-hormonal vaginal moisturizers. Lubricants can be used to increase vaginal moisture during sexual intercourse​.​​​​​​

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