Dr Clare Bailey: The symptoms you should never ignore

Most of us are now aware of the importance of cervical screening to detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. We are also likely to know something about the risks of ovarian cancer. But there is less talk about cancer of the womb (uterus). 

Despite being the most common gynaecological cancer and the fourth most common cancer in women – following breast, lung and bowel – it doesn’t get a lot of air time. 

womb cancer symptoms
Maite Franchi/Folio Art

According to the charity The Eve Appeal, awareness of gynaecological cancers in general is very low, which means that women often don’t know what to look out for.I am sorry to hear that some women feel too embarrassed to get symptoms, such as unusual bleeding, checked out and say that they feel too self-conscious to see their GP. 

However, having a normal cervical screening doesn’t give you a clean bill of health regarding possible womb cancer. This is because this cancer develops within the womb lining – called the endometrium – which, unlike the cervix, you can’t see on a routine vaginal examination. So what symptoms might lead you to be concerned? You need to pay attention to unexpected or ‘unscheduled’ vaginal bleeding. That means experiencing a bleed that doesn’t fit in with your usual menstrual cycle; bleeding that occurs at irregular times, or is unusually heavy. This particularly includes bleeding after the menopause or after sex. 

Alternatively you may have pink, watery or brown discharge. Less common is lower abdominal pain and pain during sex. 

But don’t panic if you do have any of these symptoms. Irregular bleeding is common and could be due to other conditions such as polyps (benign growths), endometriosis, fibroids, recent change in contraceptive hormones and ‘dysfunctional bleeding’ – which means bleeding with no obvious cause after investigation. Only a small number of women with irregular bleeding will have cancer of the womb and only one in ten cases of bleeding after the menopause are due to the disease. 

Having said that, don’t ignore the symptoms or be too embarrassed about getting checked by your doctor – just follow these simple rules…

  •  Know your menstrual cycle and what’s normal for you.
  • Think about how your symptoms affect you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your GP, ‘Should I be examined?’
  • Request an appointment with a female doctor if you prefer.
  • Go back to your GP if things don’t improve.
  • Above all – don’t avoid an examination just because you haven’t shaved, waxed or are embarrassed about how your vulva looks – health professionals won’t even notice. We would rather you get the examination you need.

The risk factors for womb cancer include

  • Being over 40 years old.
  • Having raised levels of the hormone oestrogen which is not balanced by progesterone.
  • Being overweight triples your risk; being morbidly obese increases it six times.
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • Having a thickened womb lining.

For more information, see eveappeal.org.uk

Dig this! Gardening is good for you

gardening
Getty Images/Westend61

I’ve been having that spring urge to get outside to do some gardening. And, as well as the garden looking much better for it, you probably will too, as it has been shown to improve your health both mentally and physically. The Kings Fund healthcare charity reports that gardening eases depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress. It also reduces blood pressure as well as the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and is known for improving strength, endurance and flexibility – not many treatments can make such claims.

If you have a question you would like answered, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk.