Consider this your life saving need-to-know
Did you know that two out of three women in the UK wouldn’t consult their GP if they were suffering with persistent bloating? Or that 1.28 million women didn’t go for their routine smear test when invited?
And when you consider that 73% of women don’t even know where their vulva is, it’s clear that we need to raise more awareness about our ‘down there’ health. A lot more awareness.
In May, gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal launches their ‘Get Lippy’ campaign, encouraging women everywhere to get loud about their gynaecological health. They’ve partnered up with a number of brands, including Elemis, Vaseline and EOS, all of whom will be donating 10% of the RRP of a nominated product towards vital research.
Opening up the conversation and raising awareness will ultimately help save lives through early diagnosis. So in the name of getting lippy, we decided to catch up with The Eve Appeal and their ‘Ask Eve’ expert, Karen Hobbs, to get a no-nonsense guide on what you need to know about spotting the signs of cancer early.
Consider this your gynae cancer cheat sheet for what to get checked and when, in order to keep your risk level at a minimum. It’s worth noting that many of the symptoms listed below are not exclusive to gynaecological cancers, but it’s vital that you get them checked over by a doctor to rule it out.
Over to Karen and The Eve Appeal for the rest…
Cases diagnosed each year: Over 3,000
Cervical cancer symptoms
‘In most cases, vaginal bleeding is the first of the cervical cancer symptoms to be noticeable. It often occurs after having sex.
‘Bleeding at any other time, other than your expected monthly period, is also considered unusual. This also includes bleeding after the menopause.
‘Other signs of cervical cancer include pain and discomfort during sex and an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge.
‘However, the vast majority of women with the cervical cancer symptoms listed above do not have cervical cancer, and are far more likely to be experiencing other conditions, such as infections.’
Risk factors of cervical cancer
Smoking – Smoking doubles the risk of developing cervical cancer, as chemicals in tobacco damage the cells of the cervix.
HPV – There are 150 different strands of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Passed on through skin-to-skin sexual contact, most people will contract it at some point in their lives and it usually goes away on its own. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by high-risk strains of the HPV virus; the vaccine protects against strains 16 and 18, which together cause around 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.
Cell changes or ‘CIN’ – Cervical cancer often takes years to develop, the cells of the cervix showing changes beforehand. Known as Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN), these abnormalities are caused by HPV. Although CIN is not cancer, it is a pre-cancerous condition with the potential to become cancer if these cell changes aren’t checked and treated. This is why it’s so important to attend your cervical screenings (smear tests), as these look for the presence of any abnormal cervical cells.
Cases diagnosed each year: Around 7,300
‘If ovarian cancer symptoms are identified and the cancer diagnosed at an early stage, the outcome is more optimistic. However, because some of the symptoms are often the same as for other, less serious conditions, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or PMS, it can be difficult to recognise the symptoms in the early stages – which is why most women are not diagnosed until the disease has spread.
‘That said, there are four main symptoms that are more prevalent in women diagnosed with the condition. These are:
- Increased abdominal size and persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes)
- Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain
- Unexplained change in bowel habits
- Difficulty eating and feeling full quickly, or feeling nauseous
‘Other possible symptoms that may be present, but are more likely the result of other conditions in the pelvic area:
- Back pain
- Needing to pass urine more frequently than usual
- Pain during sex.’
Risk factors of ovarian cancer
Age – The risk of developing ovarian cancer increases with age; over 80% of all cases are diagnosed in women over the age of 50.
Family history – About 20% of ovarian cancers are thought to be caused by the inherited gene mutations BRCA1 or BRCA2. If there is a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancers, especially in those under 60, you should discuss genetic testing with your GP.
Ovulation – Every time an egg is released from the ovary (ovulation), the surface of the ovary breaks to let the egg out. This damages the ovary’s surface and it needs to repair itself. The risk of cell damage increases with each ovulation; this could be why women who take the contraceptive pill, have multiple pregnancies and breastfeed have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer, as eggs are not released at these times.
Cases diagnosed each year: Over 1,300
Vulval cancer symptoms
Signs of vulval cancer include the following:
- A lasting itch
- Pain or soreness
- Thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
- An open sore or growth visible on the skin
- A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
- A lump or swelling in the vulva
Risk factors of vulval cancer
Cell changes or ‘VIN’ – Vulval intraepithelial neoplasia (VIN) is a precancerous condition, meaning cells in the vulva have started to change and could develop into cancer if untreated. The main signs of VIN are a persistent vulval itch and raised/discoloured patches of skin.
HPV – Sometimes, certain strands of HPV can cause cells in the vulva to become abnormal and potentially cancerous. HPV is found in at least 40% of women with vulval cancer.
Smoking – This weakens our immune system, meaning women who smoke are less likely to successfully get rid of the HPV virus.
Skin conditions – Several skin conditions can affect the vulva, but Lichen Sclerosus and Lichen Planus are the two main conditions that may increase risk of vulval cancer. About 5% of women who have one of these conditions will develop vulval cancer in future.
Womb cancer (also uterine and endometrial cancer)
Cases diagnosed each year: 9,300
Womb cancer symptoms
‘The most common symptom of womb cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially for women who have been through the menopause. Around 90% of endometrial cancer diagnoses are reported due to post-menopausal or irregular vaginal bleeding – though please note that most people with abnormal bleeding will not have a gynaecological cancer.
The irregular bleeding might be:
- Vaginal bleeding after the menopause
- Between periods
- Bleeding that is unusually heavy
- Vaginal discharge from blood-stained to light or dark brown
Risk factors of womb cancer
Age – A woman’s risk of womb cancer increases as she gets older. Most womb cancers occur in women who are post-menopausal, and around 1% are women under 40.
Family history – 3-5% of womb cancers are linked to an inherited genetic condition called Lynch Syndrome. This increases a person’s risk of several cancers, bowel and womb types being the two most prominent. If you have a family history of either or both of these cancers, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP about genetic testing.
Excess oestrogen – The female hormone oestrogen causes the cells of the womb lining to divide; therefore an excess increases the risk of womb cancer as it encourages potentially unwanted cell changes.
Being overweight – Being overweight or obese increases a woman’s risk of womb cancer. Oestrogen is stored in our fat cells, so overweight women generally produce a higher level of oestrogen. Maintaining a healthy weight can decrease your risk of womb cancer.
Cases diagnosed each year: Around 250
Vaginal cancer symptoms
Signs of vaginal cancer include the following:
- Unexpected bleeding, e.g. between periods, after menopause or after sex
- Vaginal discharge that smells or is blood-stained
- Vaginal pain during sex
- A vaginal lump or growth that you, or your doctor, can feel
- Persistent pelvic and vaginal pain
Risk factors of vaginal cancer
Age – About 40% of all vaginal cancers occur in women aged 75 and over.
HPV – Over 70% of vaginal cancers are linked to the HPV virus, explained above.
Smoking – Our immune system can often get rid of HPV, but smoking weakens the immune system, meaning if you smoke there is a greater risk of developing vaginal cancer.
Cell changes or ‘VAIN’ – Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia (VAIN) means that cells in the lining of the vagina have changed, and could become cancerous if left untreated.
Note that the purpose of this feature is to inform, not replace one-to-one medical consultations. For advice tailored specifically to you, always discuss your health with your doctor.