Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month: What you need to know about women’s cancers

01 September 2017

Lack of awareness is costing lives, particularly since, unlike breast cancer, gynaecological organs are not easily visible. Many symptoms are common with other more benign health problems.

We don’t like to talk about gynaecological conditions, so awkwardness prevents many from dealing with the issue and a quarter of all women find talking about these symptoms embarrassing, even with friends, family and their doctor.

Mr Dirk BrinkmannConsultant Gynaecologist and Cancer Surgeon at Spire Portsmouth Hospital says: "Over 90% of women diagnosed with Stage 1 cervical cancer survive for at least five years, for example, compared with just 5% of those (diagnosed) with Stage 4 (of the) disease. So it’s really important that these cancers are picked up and treated as early as possible." 

Young women are even more reluctant to discuss gynaecological health problems and are less informed despite awareness being equally important to their age group.

Each year in the UK, more than 21,000* women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer. Cancer Research UK figures show the most common is endometrial (womb) cancer, with over 8,000 new cases. The rarest is vaginal cancer with about 250. Over 7,500 women die of these diseases and survival is linked with stage at diagnosis - the earlier, the better.

"The basic conundrum is that the symptoms that indicate cancer are often quite common with every day medical niggles, and in most cases will have a much less serious explanation," says Mr Brinkmann.

"But if we ignore them completely, or until they become debilitating, we risk diagnosing cancer at a later stage when treatment might be more aggressive and less effective. The difficult thing is finding the balance between rushing to the doctor for every twinge, and leaving it too late when something is really wrong. This is where we can help.

"For example, with bloating, I suggest you make an appointment if you’ve been bloated on most days for at least three weeks."

Common symptoms which can occur in cervical, womb, ovarian and vaginal cancers include: 

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • abnormal vaginal discharge
  • pelvic pain or pressure
  • needing to wee a lot

Ovarian cancer can also present with more vague symptoms such as bloating, abdominal swelling, loss of appetite and change in bowel habit.

Cancer of the vulva can present with a painful lump, ulcer or bleeding.

Almost half of people who get cancer are diagnosed late, making treatment less likely to succeed and reducing chances of survival or quality of life after treatment.

"Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages, before it has a chance to spread to other parts of the body can have a huge impact on survival," adds Mr Brinkmann. 

"Once a cancer has spread, it is often harder to treat successfully, meaning the patient's chances of survival are much lower. Less than half of all ovarian cancers are diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, which is why it is known as the silent killer. This is why awareness is so important - it can literally save lives.”

If you have a concern, I would strongly recommend you see your doctor promptly to discuss possible treatments. Gynaecological oncologists specialise in treating women with reproductive cancers using the newest and most effective treatment techniques.

Mr Dirk Brinkmann is a Consultant Gynaecologist and Cancer Surgeon practising at Spire Portsmouth Hospital.

*Figures sourced from The Eve Appeal

The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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