More than 21,000 women are diagnosed with a form of gynaecological cancer each year in the UK and 21 women will die each day as a result. But only one in seven women can name a single type.
‘Women often tell us the first they hear of a gynae cancer is when they’re diagnosed with one,’ says Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal, the charity that raises awareness and funds research into the five gynae cancers: womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal.
As with all cancers, the earlier gynae cancers are diagnosed, the better the prognosis is. ‘The five-year survival rate after diagnosis of ovarian cancer is 46 per cent. If women are diagnosed at stage one, this would rise to 90 per cent – but less than a third of cases are found then,’ Athena says.
The underlying problem is that women do not report signs and symptoms to their doctors. In a survey by The Eve Appeal, the most common reason was deeming symptoms ‘not serious enough’ and embarrassment – nearly one in five women say that they worry about seeing a male doctor. (NB you can always ask to see a woman doctor.)
‘If there are changes to your normal cycle or you have a niggling worry, it is vital to talk to your doctor,’ Dr Bella Smith says. If you are not sure what to say, the correct terminology (‘down there’ is a bit vague and pet names can be misleading) or you simply want reassurance, contact the ask eve service on 0808 802 0019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to talk to a specialist nurse.
Athena also advises to ‘ask for a referral to a specialist if you’ve seen your GP more than three times for symptoms specific to gynae health issues’. To break the taboos and raise awareness of signs and symptoms, The Eve Appeal is launching a new campaign called Get Lippy.
And yes, that means ‘lippy’ in the sense of speaking up about all things gynae, but it also means lipstick! The Eve Appeal has partnered with national retailers, including Tesco, and beauty brands so you can buy a lipstick or lip balm and contribute to pioneering research for screening and interventions.
The campaign runs throughout May with a national Get Lippy Day on 25 May. Condoms Can help protect against cervical and possibly other gynae cancers. Try vegan brand Hanx – male condoms designed for women to carry in their bags (£6 for a pack of three, hanxofficial.com)
The five gynaecological cancers
1) Womb cancer (aka uterine or endometrial cancer) the most common gynae cancer and fourth most common cancer in women, it mostly affects postmenopausal women. The biggest risk factor is obesity.
Sign: Vaginal bleeding and discharge (from bright red blood to watery pink, or brown discharge) more than a year after periods have stopped; between periods in younger women; after sex.
2) Ovarian cancer this affects women of any age, but is most common after menopause. women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer or who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are at increased risk.
Signs: Persistent (more than three weeks) abdominal bloating; changes in bowel habits; feeling full after eating small amounts; needing to pass urine more frequently.
3) Cervical cancer one thousand young women die from this cancer each year, which is mostly caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. From age 25, all women can have a free smear test to detect HPV. if positive, the patient can be closely monitored. Girls aged 12 and 13 are offered HPV vaccinations.
Sign: Bleeding between periods or after sex, even if a smear test has been normal.
4) Vulval cancer this rare form of cancer on the lips of skin outside the vagina is on the rise in younger women. If diagnosed early, it can be managed effectively.
Sign: A small lump or skin changes on the vulva.
5) Vaginal cancer a very rare skin cancer, it is mostly found in women aged over 60 and may also be linked to HPV.
Signs: Pain, soreness or itchiness inside the vagina; bleeding during or after sex; smelly or blood-stained discharge.
For further information, go to eveappeal.org.uk/gynaecological-cancers
Feature by Sarah Stacey