What Are The Five Types of Gynaecological Cancer?
Public Cervix Announcement: this month is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month. In the UK, 21,000 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancer each year. Heartbreakingly, more than 7,700 of these women will go on to die from it. That’s 21 mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and friends each day. And yet, one in five women can’t name a single sign or symptom. Can you?
There are five kinds of gynaecological cancer: womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal. “With the types you can screen for, we go through peaks and troughs with diagnosis rates – normally related to a celebrity case study like Angelina Jolie for example,” says Dr. Tracie Miles. Sadly, once the headlines stop, so too do the women making doctor’s appointments to check out that ‘thing’ that’s been bothering them. Without an early intervention, a woman’s prognosis can worsen rapidly – making an early diagnosis vital.
“It’s not just a matter of life or death for these women. For certain types of cancer, an early diagnosis may mean the intervention is much less invasive – they may not need chemo for example.” says Dr Miles.
“Womb cancer is the most common of the five. It’s also the easiest to detect and the easiest to treat.” says Dr Miles. Symptoms are irritatingly vague (typical of gynaecological cancers as a whole which makes them tricky to detect) but include irregular or unexplained bleeding.
“This may start with spotting, blood that’s not ‘snow white red’, or even brown discharge.” says Dr Miles. “Post menopausal women should be especially aware of any bleeding and speak to their doctor.”
Maintaining a healthy weight is key to protecting yourself from womb cancer. “We know that overweight women carry oestrogen in fat tissue. High levels of oestrogen in postmenopausal women – that isn’t opposed by progesterone – can be a promoter of womb cancer.”
Cervical cancer is the only type of gynaecological cancer you can screen for (enter stage right: your smear test) meaning it is often diagnosed at an early stage.
“While we are seeing less of these, we do still get peaks. When it is highlighed by a celebrity scare – Jade Goody for example – many more women will get smears and when the campaign ends numbers drop.”
But that smear is a vital step in catching pre-cancerous cells that may turn into cervical cancer. If caught during a smear you may be treated as a day case and are unlikely to need further treatment such as a hysterectomy. Signs to look out for include irregular or unexplained bleeding, sometimes during or after sex.
Teenage girls can also receive a vaccine against the HPV virus which is the wart virus that is the cause of 90% of cervical cancer cases.
Ovarian cancer is about as common as cervical cancer but much harder to detect and there is currently no way of screening for it. The majority of women diagnosed are over 50.
“Symptoms include a thickening of the waistline, feeling bloated all the time and changes in your bowel or peeing habits.” says Dr Miles, “The key thing here is these are consistent changes – we all experience bloating at times but this is something which does not go away.”
The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia. Vulval cancer is rare and difficult to detect. You may notice an eczema-like itchy raised area on the outside lips of the vagina. It could be a lump or a dry patch but it is very different to thrush.
“If you notice this, don’t ignore it,” says Dr Miles, “It’s skin cancer and it can be easily treated under anaesthetic by removing the skin. if you leave it and it grows it can grow into your lymphatic system and remove the whole vulva or radiotherapy and chemo to the area.”
This is the most rare of the five and in drastic cases involves the removal of the vagina. “It’s difficult to detect but when using a tampon you may be able to feel a lump or bump inside. Combined with an unexplained discharge this could be a warning sign of vaginal cancer so do seek medical advice.”
There are things you can do to protect yourself from vaginal cancer. “Smoking is so so bad – and I say this as a former smoker myself. We know that those who smoke are more at risk of getting vaginal and vulval cancer and that if they do the treatment is not as effective. Not smoking is key.” says Dr Miles.