You may have heard of both ovarian and cervical cancer, but there are actually five gynaecological cancers; womb, vaginal and vulval are also on the list and they can be devastating if not caught early.
There are more than 21,000 women who are given the news that they have been diagnosed with a form of gynaecological cancer every year. This equates to 57 women being diagnosed each day and 21 women losing their lives to cancer.
‘If you are experiencing unusual symptoms below the belly button in your genital area, like bleeding or unexpected pain, firstly don’t panic,’ says Tracie Miles, The Eve Appeal’s gynaecological cancer specialist information nurse.
‘It is probably nothing serious, but you should go to your doctor to get it checked out. It’s likely to be a treatable non-life-threatening condition that your doctor can help with.’

Cervical cancer

WHAT IS IT?
Cancerous cells lining the surface and area connecting the cervix to the womb.

SIGNS NOT TO IGNORE
Unexpected vaginal bleeding, which often occurs after having sex, is a symptom of cervical cancer
Bleeding at any other time, separate to your expected monthly period, is considered unusual, which includes bleeding after the menopause
Pain and discomfort during sex, and an unusual vaginal discharge. ‘Going for your smear test is the most effective way to spot pre-cancer changes. Think of it as ruling out cancer, not ruling it in. Keep yourself healthy and go for your screening smear when invited,’ says Tracie.

TREATMENTS
‘When picked up, pre-cancerous changes or early cervical cancer treatment can be treated as a simple day-case procedure. Symptoms left unmanaged may mean having a hysterectomy, and left longer may mean chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but left too long and a cure may not be achieved,’ says Tracie.

EFFECTS ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
‘For all of those affected by a gynae cancer, including family members and loved ones, it’s emotionally exhausting and scary,’ says Tracie. ‘Depending on the treatment for cervical cancer, there can be little impact on your physical life, or if left too long, it can impact on your working life, your fertility and even your future.’

Ovarian cancer

WHAT IS IT?
This cancer may start in different parts of the ovary or fallopian tubes, spreading into the peritoneal abdominal cavity.

SIGNS NOT TO IGNORE
‘Feeling bloated, your bowel and urinary habits have changed, feeling full all the time, something in your pelvis doesn’t feel quite right and the symptoms have been going on for the past three weeks,’ says Tracie.
‘It’s probably nothing serious, but these are also the subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer, so we want you to get checked out.’
Increased abdominal size and persistent bloating (not bloating that comes/goes)
Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain
Difficulty eating and feeling full quickly.

TREATMENTS
‘It’s a tough journey for ovarian cancer sufferers,’ Tracie says.
‘Generally, a woman will present at a late stage, so this means she will need chemotherapy and major surgery to treat the disease.
‘We know some women are at higher-risk of carrying the BRCA gene mutation, much like Angelina Jolie. Risk-reducing surgery can provide life-saving opportunities for some women.’

EFFECTS ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
‘The emotional and physical endurance required by women and their families going through treatment is massive, but there is a lot of support out there, and research in early detection, risk-prediction and prevention is ongoing,’ says Tracie.

Womb cancer

WHAT IS IT?
Also known as uterine or endometrial cancer, this usually starts in the womb’s lining.

SIGNS NOT TO IGNORE
Abnormal bleeding from the vagina, especially in women who have been through the menopause
Irregular bleeding is another sign and bleeding that is unusually heavy or happens between periods
A third sign is vaginal discharge – from pink and watery to brown. ‘Get checked!’ says Tracie. ‘The signal for a womb cancer is an unexpected bleed, so if you are having a period when you weren’t expecting one (for example mid-month or after your menopause), your womb is telling you something, so go and get that bleeding checked out. Hopefully, it will be nothing, but do have it investigated.’

TREATMENTS
Tracie says: ‘Womb cancer is usually curable when caught early, by having a hysterectomy. Left longer, treatment may also involve radiotherapy. Left even longer, unfortunately treatment may not be curative.’

EFFECTS ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
‘It will be scary going through this, as with all the cancers mentioned,’ says Tracie. ‘It may take three months of your diagnostic year to recover from a curative operation. Adding radiotherapy to support your cure may take longer than a year.’

Vulval cancer

WHAT IS IT?
The vulva is a woman’s external genitals. It includes the lips surrounding the vagina, the clitoris, and the Bartholin’s glands (two small glands each side of the vagina).

SIGNS NOT TO IGNORE
A lasting itch
Pain or soreness
Thickened, raised, red, white or dark-coloured patches on the skin of the vulva
An open sore or growth that is visible on the skin
A mole on the vulva that changes its shape or colour
A lump or swelling in the vulva.‘You may see or feel a subtle skin change, there might be an itchy area or a dry area on the vaginal lips, or a raised lump or bump,’ says Tracie. ‘It is often not painful at the early stage.’

TREATMENTS
‘The good news is this is a skin cancer and if managed early, it can be cured by removal of the lesion with anaesthetic. If left, it can spread to the lymph system, meaning major surgery and possibly radiotherapy, but it’s still curable,’ says Tracie.

EFFECTS ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
Tracie says: ‘It can be emotionally tough and embarrassing explaining where the cancer is to doctors, and then in turn to family and friends.
‘Yet, treatment if the cancer is caught early is manageable, though if left too long, it does become uncomfortable.
‘Recovery after surgery is usually within a couple of months, but will take longer after radiotherapy.’

UNINFORMED
When asked to identify parts for eh female anatomy, 46% of women could not correctly label the vulva.

Vaginal cancer

WHAT IS IT?
Cancer of the vagina is a skin (or squamous) cancer that begins, like other cancers, when a cell changes its growth pattern and structure, increasing in size each time it reproduces, until it develops into a tumour.

SIGNS NOT TO IGNORE
‘Symptoms of vaginal cancer are an unexpected lump, bump, skin change or discharge inside the vagina. It’s likely to be benign as vaginal cancer is very rare, but do get symptoms checked,’ says Tracie.
Many women don’t have any symptoms, yet you may experience:
Bleeding between periods, after the menopause or after sex
Unexpected vaginal discharge
Pain during sex
A lump or growth in the vagina that you can feel
A vaginal itch that won’t go away.

TREATMENTS
Tracie says: ‘This is managed by surgery, sometimes radiotherapy, and chemotherapy can be considered.’

EFFECTS ON YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE
Tracie says: ‘Like vulval cancer, vaginal cancer can be embarrassing to have diagnosed and to explain. Physical recovery may take a month or so, emotional recovery may take longer, as it does in all the gynae cancers.’

Images: Shutterstock

DR CHRISTIAN SAYS

‘How can we improve outcomes for gynae cancers? Education! Symptoms can be non-specific and similar to other issues, making them hard to pick up. The more informed we all are, the better.’

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