Most of us are pretty daunted by the term ‘gynaecological cancers’, aren’t we? It’s easy to fear the worst and stick our heads in the sand, but with a little information to know what to look for, we can be forearmed to check our bodies and seek help with any concerns.
The three most common gynae cancers are endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer and cervical cancer, and although these are the most common, they are still relatively rare. The most common is endometrial cancer and there are 8000 cases a year in the UK.
It’s tempting to rush straight to Dr Google when you feel a lump, or your discharge looks a bit ‘funny’ and it’s important to remember that while the symptoms we’ll discuss in this article are common with gynaecological cancer, they can also present for a myriad of other, much less concerning conditions.
You’ll no doubt have already taken part in the screening programme for cervical cancer, and been invited to a smear test every three years since you were 25, or every 5 years after you turn 50. The screening programme runs until you are 64. Smear tests don’t detect cervical cancer, but they do check for HPV which is a sexually transmitted virus that is linked to cervical cancer. If you are HPV positive, the test then checks for abnormal cells which have the possibility of becoming cancerous in the future.
After 64, you aren’t invited for smear tests any longer and unfortunately, you can’t self-refer for a smear test either. The reason for this is that it’s unlikely that the abnormal cells that the screening test is looking for will have time to develop into cervical cancer - as it can take years for the cells to develop. There are some exceptions to this - for example, if you have never had a smear test, or haven’t had one since you were 50 your GP may be able to request one. You may also continue to have smear tests if you have been advised you need further testing following abnormal results.
So, without a smear test, symptoms that you should keep an eye on are post-menopausal bleeding, changes to your vaginal discharge, bloating (especially over 50), pain during sex or pelvic pain.
For ovarian cancer, warning signs to look out for are persistent bloating (especially if this is new in someone over the age of 50), feeling full even without eating a meal, pelvic pain, abdominal pain and increased urinary urgency and frequency. And especially important for our community, if you start developing urgency when passing urine, and you’ve not had any previous investigation for this then it’s important to speak to your doctor about this symptom. Of course, it could likely be related to an overactive bladder or a UTI, both of which will be common for our community - but seeking reassurance and getting checked out is important.
For endometrial cancer, warning signs to look out for include post-menopausal bleeding (i.e. vaginal bleeding despite having no periods for one year due to the menopause). Blood in the urine can also be a possible sign if you also are anaemic or have high blood sugar levels.
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Keep an eye on symptoms by regularly doing a self-check of your vulva in the comfort of your own home.
Checking your vulva and knowing 'your normal' is one of the most important things we can do for our gynaecological health. If you haven't had a gander at your undercarriage with a handheld mirror, now is your time!
It might be a bit weird if you've not done it before, granted. But knowing what your vulva looks like 'normally' will help if you feel anything unusual in future. You can also ask a partner to help, should you fancy - after all, it's often that our partners will notice something unusual and say 'er... this doesn't feel/ look quite right, should you get it checked?', and that's a Good Thing.
Using the image above as a guide, wash your hands and get yourself comfy on your bed, or floor, with some cushions and a light - a desk lamp is ideal. Grab a handheld mirror and tilt your pelvis up so you can fully see your vulva in the mirror. Following the steps above, feel every part of your vulva, parting the labia lips to see the vaginal entrance and note what is normal, while checking for lumps, sores, irritation, and any rash. You might like to keep a diary of your self-checks, to keep an eye on changes. Importantly, immediately report anything unusual to your GP and ask for a smear test, if necessary.