Over 21,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer every year but awareness of symptoms is still very poor according to leading cancer charities.
As part of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, which runs throughout September, campaigners are calling on people to open up and discuss the subject – and they mean men as well as women.
“Cancer doesn’t just affect the person with the disease – it affects everyone connected to that person – that means it is much more than just a ‘woman’s problem’,” according to Mr Jafaru Abu a Consultant Gynaecological cancer surgeon at Spire Nottingham Hospital in Tollerton.
“Women and men need to be more aware of what is normal because this is the only way they will be able to tell when something is wrong. As with all cases of cancer the quicker it is detected the better the treatment outcomes,” he added.
Mr Jafaru Abu said: “The lack of basic knowledge about the female body or conversations around how the female anatomy works, is extremely worrying – how can we expect women to know what to look out for if they don’t know what is normal and what could be cancer?.”
“I am not expecting people to have a vast medical knowledge but it really is worth taking the time to find out what is healthy and what should be checked out by a GP.”
The five cancers categorised as gynaecological cancers are:
Cervical cancer: Cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb) often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you do have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding, (which can occur after sex, in between periods or after the menopause) or sometimes vaginal discharge.
Abnormal bleeding or vaginal discharge doesn’t mean that you definitely have cervical cancer, but it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer screening has been very effective in preventing cervical cancer and women are encouraged to never miss their cervical smears as this could make the difference earlier detection (curable by minor surgical treatments), to advanced stage disease that may not even be amenable to surgical treatment.
Ovarian cancer: The fifth most common cancer amongst women in the UK with more than 7,000 women diagnosed each year. It is the most common cause of death compared to all the other gynaecological cancers. Because symptoms are not well known or often mistaken for as ‘tummy troubles’ or period pains, it is usually discovered in the late stages when successful treatment is much more difficult. However, when diagnosed early, it is potentially curable.
Symptoms to watch out for are as follows: persistent abdominal bloating, changes in bowel habits, easily tired, unintentional weight loss, urinary frequency, feeling easily full after small meals, persistent pelvic/abdominal discomfort. Any woman with one of more of the above symptoms should contact their GP who may arrange for a simple blood test and an abdominal/pelvic ultra-sound scan.
Vaginal cancer: A rare form of cancer with around 260 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year. The most common symptom of vaginal cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding although smelly or bloody vaginal discharge, pain during sex or pain when urinating can also be indicators, as can irregular or heavier periods.
Endometrial Cancer or cancer of the womb: Abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom. If you have been through the menopause any vaginal bleeding (post-menopausal bleeding) is considered abnormal. If not then ‘unusual bleeding’ may include bleeding between your periods. About 8,475 new cases are diagnosed in the UK every year – most in women aged 40 to 74 who have been through the menopause. Majority of cases will present early, unlike ovarian cancer. Surgical treatment is usually very effective and also potentially curative.
Cancer of the vulva: The vulva is a woman’s external genitals including the lips surrounding the vagina (labia minora and labia majora), the clitoris (sexual organ that helps women reach sexual climax), and the Bartholin’s glands (two small glands each side of the vagina).
Symptoms can include a persistent itch, pain, soreness or tenderness in the vulva. You should also look out for raised and thickened patches of skin that can be red, white or dark or any lumps or wart-like growths.
*Figures from Cancer Research UK