Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. Gynaecological cancers (i.e. cancers affecting the ovaries, uterus, cervix, vulva and vagina) are among the most common cancers in women. Unfortunately, given the nature of the disease, cancer can recur or progress in some patients. Although the management of early-stage cancers is relatively straightforward, with lower associated morbidity and mortality, the surgical management of advanced and recurrent cancers (including persistent or progressive cancers) is significantly more complicated, often requiring very extensive procedures. Pelvic exenterative surgery involves removal of some or all of the pelvic organs. Exenterative surgery for persistent or recurrent cancer after initial treatment is difficult and is usually associated with significant perioperative morbidity and mortality. However, it provides women with a chance of cure that otherwise may not be possible. In carefully selected patients, it may also have a place in palliation of symptoms. The biology of recurrent ovarian cancer differs from that of other gynaecological cancers; it is often responsive to chemotherapy and is not included in this review.