EVERY five minutes a woman is diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer – with more than 33,000 losing their battle every year.
That number is only expected to increase amid fears the coronavirus pandemic will lead to tens of thousands of extra cancer deaths.
But experts fear that awareness around gynaecological cancers is low – and many women may dismiss symptoms.
Often the first a woman has heard of womb, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulval cancer is when a doctor is telling her she has the disease.
But catching it early could save lives and the best way to do that is by knowing the early warning signs.
Here, gynaecologist Dr Shree Datta at INTIMINA, shares what you need to be on the look out for when it comes to gynaecological cancer…
The 6 signs to know…
- Abnormal bleeding (in between your periods, after sex or after the menopause)
- Repeated bouts of abdominal pain
- Unexplained bloating
- Change in appetite
- Change of bowel habits
- Significant weight loss without trying
Make sure your consult your doctor early in case of any of these problems.
If no cause is found initially, go back to your doctor if symptoms persist or get worse.
We may explore things with an ultrasound or blood test.
Who should be on the look out?
These cancers can affect young women who have regular periods or those who have gone through the menopause, so don't assume it only affects women who have gone through the menopause.
So to be clear, whilst your overall risk of developing cancer increases with age, the menopause alone doesn't cause cancer.
How can I reduce the risk?
Whilst you cannot change some risk factors – for example, your family history or genetic background – factors such as smoking or being overweight can affect your risk of developing gynaecological cancers, so it's important to watch your diet and exercise regularly.
This can also strengthen your immune system.
Think about if someone in your family has had womb, ovarian, cervical or breast cancer and if this is prominent in your family, speak to your doctor.
Keep a diary of abnormal symptoms such as heavy periods or bleeding in between your periods and make sure you attend when you are called for smear tests.
TOP TIPS FOR TALKING GYNAE
- Know your menstrual cycle – and if your periods have stopped, note down when your last period was. Periods are a crucial part of a gynae consultation. Know what’s normal for you and what isn’t
- Think about how symptoms are affecting your life and what you do/can’t do because of them
- Know the name of your contraceptive pill and how long you have been taking it for. Remind yourself of the names of any other medication that you take regularly
- Don’t be afraid to say: Should I be examined / I don’t mind being examined. Suggesting it can make for a better consultation and will signal to the GP that you understand that it may be needed and is not a problem for you
- Try to be clear in your own mind about when your symptoms started and include all of them. Timeline of symptoms is very important to a doctor when assessing what a condition could be
- Know when your last cervical screen was – the GP may not have a record if it was done elsewhere
- Ask for a female doctor if you prefer, or a double appointment if you think it will give you more time and comfort to open up. If it helps you to bring someone to the appointment with you, this is also fine
- Get clued up on the right vocabulary to explain your problem. It can be difficult for your GP if you refer to your ‘bits’ or your ‘waterworks’
- Know when the doctor wants to follow up if things haven’t improved. Gynae symptoms that go on and on must be followed up so ask your doctor when to book a review appointment.
- If you can, think ahead about your appointment and what will make you feel more at ease. Don’t decline an examination because you’ve not waxed, shaved or think your vulva doesn’t look ‘normal’ or any other reasons that you may feel are embarrassing. Healthcare professionals don’t notice and don’t mind and would always rather you have the examination or screening test you need
For more information visit the eveappeal.org.uk
Tests such as cervical smears and mammography are designed to help us detect whether there is cancer and to find it early if so, so make sure you attend.
Bring a friend with you if it helps to relax with you, or take some pain relief beforehand.
Don't forget that practicing safe sex and getting the HPV vaccination if you are eligible can protect you from high risk HPV types which are commonly associated with cervical cancer.
Two things come to mind – don't forget to self examine your breasts regularly and attend for mammography if you're called, as well as your smear tests, as some gynaecological cancers can also occur if you have breast changes or breast cancer.
Finally, I appreciate it can be difficult, but speaking to your doctor early may mean that if cancer is diagnosed, it is diagnosed early and treatment may be able to cure it.
Don't wait until your next smear test if you find symptoms develop in between tests, speak to your doctor.
For more advice and resources please visit Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month – Foundation for Women's Cancer.
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