Let’s deconstruct Gynaecological Cancers
Every day in the UK 58 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancers. Sadly, gynaecological cancers have been overlooked for many years. We’re here to break down the facts to help you understand the facts, symptoms and detection methods.
There are five gynaecological cancers:
We’ll dive into what these all mean, what are the main symptoms and how they are diagnosed.
This is where the cells of your ovaries (the place where your eggs are produced and released) start to change and grow abnormally. In later stages of ovarian cancer, these abnormal cells start to grow and spread to the abdomen (belly) or the pelvis.
- Abdominal pain is usually the first symptom that women often experience
- Bloating is also often a common second symptom
- Unexplained bowel and urine changes (type, frequency) can be a sign in a proportion of women
- Abnormal bleeding can also occur in certain cases
Of course, these symptoms may come in a different order depending on the person.
Early detection of Ovarian Cancer is key. However, because some of the main symptoms listed above such as bloating can be a common symptom in other conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) it can be hard for both women and doctors to identify this as a possible sign of Ovarian Cancer. This is why most women are not diagnosed until the abnormal cells have started to spread.
If you are experiencing any symptoms, your Doctor or Gynaecologist will examine you and arrange for blood tests and an ultrasound to be done. This allows them to look at your internal organs and decide whether you will need further testing to take a closer look at your ovaries.
Cervical cancer is cancer of the Cervix (aka the neck of the womb, which connects your womb and vagina). Most cases of Cervical Cancer are caused by a sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV). This is why in many countries, it is recommended that girls are vaccinated against HPV before they become sexually active.
- Abnormal Vaginal bleeding is commonly one of the first signs of cervical cancer. This usually occurs after having sex or bleeding in between your monthly period
- Pain during sex is another common sign of Cervical Cancer
- Bad smelling vaginal discharge is also another common sign
As before, these signs are not solo related to Cervical Cancer. This is why it’s important to attend regular pap smears (don’t ignore the letters, it’s less scary and less painful then you may be envisioning).
Cervical Cancer is usually detected through routine screening called a smear test (or cervical smear). This looks at the cells in the cervix to asses whether there are any abnormal changes. If so, further confirmatory lab tests and scans will be conducted.
Womb Cancer is the most common Gynaecological Cancer. Most cases of womb cancer begin in the Endometrium (the lining of the womb which is shed during your period). Abnormal cells begin to grow in divide and change until they become a tumour. Womb Cancer is most common in women who have gone through menopause.
- As the tumour develops it can cause unexpected vaginal bleeding between periods
- Heavy bleeding
- Dark brown discharge or blood in discharge
- Bleeding during Menopause
A Doctor may conduct an internal pelvic examination to understand whether there are any abnormalities. The next step may involve a special ultrasound, a Trans-vaginal ultrasound (TVUS) which helps to build up a picture of the womb. A sample of the cells lining the womb may also be taken and checked for abnormalities.
Vaginal cancer is very rare. The cancerous cells usually start in the womb or cervix and grow into the vagina.
There are some risk factors which may cause someone to be at a slightly higher risk of getting vaginal cancer. This includes: age (most vaginal cancer cases are in women over 60), women who have been exposed to HPV, women who have had radiotherapy around their pelvis, or women who have taken a drug called DES (Diethylstilbestrol) which was a synthetic version of Estrogen given to women between the 1940s and 1970s to help women prevent miscarriage.
Many women do not have symptoms in the early stages of vaginal cancer. However, there are a few signs to look out for:
- Blood-stained vaginal discharge
- Pain in the the pelvis
- Vaginal pain during sex
- A lump in the vagina
- Itch or pain when urinating
Vaginal cancer is usually diagnosed with a combination of an internal pelvic examination with potential follow up where a sample of the vaginal cells will be taken to see whether there are any abnormalities.
So, you’re probably thinking what is the Vulva? This is the area around the vagina which includes the lips around the vagina, the clitoris, and two glans called ‘Bartholin’s glands’ which secrete a liquid to help with lubrication.
Vulval cancer usually develops in women over 60 however, it is now more commonly detected in younger women.
- A lump or swelling in the vulva
- Thick, red or dark patches on the vulva
- A long-lasting itch
- A mole on the vulva which changes size or colour
If you are experiencing any symptoms, the specialist will examine the vulva for any of the symptoms above. An examination of the vagina or cervix will also be carried out.
So, what happens if I do start experiencing symptoms?
Early detection is essential for the best possible outcome so if you are experiencing any of these symptoms above, don’t worry at all – visit your GP or Gynaecologist to get checked out.
Waiting for results can also be a tough experience so do ensure that you have someone close to support you or contact your local cancer support specialists.
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