Home News & Events News BLOG: Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month

September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, aiming to raise awareness of five types of cancer that affect 21,000 women every single year in the UK. At the Rutherford Cancer Centres, our clinical oncology teams help to diagnose and treat women with gynaecological cancer, using state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment facilities to increase the chances of a better patient outcome.

Like all cancers, the earlier it is spotted and treated, the higher the rate of survival. Unfortunately, many women don’t know the signs of gynaecological cancer or what types of cancer the term covers.

This Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, we want to inform as many people as possible of what gynaecological cancer is, what the symptoms are and how it’s treated, to support this campaign.

What is gynaecological cancer?

The term gynaecological cancer refers to five types of cancer that affect the female reproductive system. They are:

  • Womb cancer
  • Vulval cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Vaginal cancer

Some of these cancers are more common than others, although all fall under the gynaecological cancer umbrella. Each type has its own symptoms to look out for.

Womb cancer 

Womb cancer, also called uterine or endometrial cancer, is a relatively common form of gynaecological cancer that affects over 9,300 women every year. Of those, 2,400 women die of the disease every year – that’s six women every day – despite around 34% of cases being preventable due to lifestyle factors.

It’s thought that 70% of women will survive 10 years or more post-diagnosis, but early detection is vital.

The symptoms of womb cancer include (but are not limited to): 

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (for women who have been through menopause, any type of vaginal bleeding is abnormal, and for those who haven’t, heavy periods or bleeding between normal periods count as abnormal bleeding)
  • Watery discharge
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Leg, back and pelvis pain

If you have any concerns or have noticed any of the above symptoms, make an appointment to see your GP.

Vulval cancer

Vulval cancer is rare, affecting 1,300 women every year in the UK. There are different types of vulval cancer, with the most common being squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) which makes up 90% of vulval cancer cases. This type of cancer usually occurs on the labia majora, but not always.

Common symptoms include: 

  • Soreness
  • A lump
  • Itchiness that doesn’t go away
  • Patches on the skin that are thick, raised, white, red, or dark
  • Open sores
  • A visible growth
  • Changes in the appearance of moles
  • A burning sensation during urination
  • Abnormal discharge and/or bleeding outside of periods

Vulval melanoma makes up 9% of all vulval cancers, and it typically affects women over the age of 50. Signs include a change in the colour/pigment of any part of the vulva, itching, pain, and bleeding.

Other rare types of vulval cancer include verrucous carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, Paget’s disease of the vulva, and sarcomas such as epithelioid sarcomas and rhabdomyosarcomas.

Vulval cancer usually develops over time, with non-cancerous changes in the vulva noticeable up to several years in advance of a diagnosis. If you notice any changes, seek medical advice from your GP.

 Cervical cancer 

Approximately 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, with most being aged 30-45. The NHS offers cervical screening (also known as smear tests) to women over the age of 25 every three to five years, but due to cervical cancer having almost no symptoms in its early stages, some women are diagnosed in the later stages.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (heavier periods, bleeding in between periods, or bleeding after the menopause)
  • Pain and/or discomfort during sex
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Bleeding after sex
  • Pain in the pelvis

Cervical cancer is usually caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common group of viruses. In most cases, the body fights off the virus with no problems, but 12 strains have been linked to cervical cancer, with HPV 16 and HPV 18 accounting for 70% of all cervical cancer diagnoses.

HPV is easily transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and does not require intercourse to catch it. Girls ages 12 to 13 in the UK are offered an HPV vaccine and have been since 2008.

Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, and notice any of the above symptoms, speak to your GP.

Ovarian cancer 

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in women in the UK, with over 7,400 women diagnosed every year. It is most common in women over the age of 50, but it can affect younger women – primarily those who have been through menopause. There are four main types of ovarian cancer: epithelial ovarian cancer, borderline ovarian tumours, germ cell ovarian tumours, and sex cord-stromal tumours.

If ovarian cancer is caught early, it can be treated and even cured, but there is a chance it could come back, in which case it’s usually not survivable. This means knowing the signs is even more important.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling bloated
  • Swelling in the tummy/abdomen area
  • Feeling full fast when eating
  • Pelvic and/or stomach discomfort

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your GP. It is likely not cancer, but it’s best to get it checked out to ensure a better outcome if the worst does happen.

Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is rare, with around 250 women diagnosed every year in the UK. Around 100 women die every year from it. It is most common in older women who have been through menopause, but it can affect young women, too.

Symptoms are similar to vulval cancer and may include: 

  • Bleeding after sex
  • Pain or discomfort during sex
  • Itchiness
  • A lump or abnormal growth in the vagina
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge with a noticeable smell or that has blood in
  • Abnormal bleeding between periods or after the menopause
  • Constipation
  • Swollen legs
  • Frequent urination that burns or has blood in it
  • Pelvic pain
  • Feeling as though your bowels are not empty, even if they are

These could also be symptoms of an infection, but if you experience any of these, see your GP.

PERSONALISED CANCER CARE

Diagnosing gynaecological cancer 

Any of the symptoms of the five types of gynaecological cancer could be signs of something else that isn’t as serious as cancer, but it’s important to see your GP. There is a high chance they will carry out tests on you. These could include:

  • Taking swabs or performing a smear test
  • Undertaking a biopsy
  • Ultrasound scans
  • Chest x-rays
  • CT scan
  • Blood tests
  • Pelvic examination
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • Colposcopy

At Rutherford Cancer Centres, we have some of the most up-to-date diagnostic equipment available which give results in a short time frame. If you go through the NHS, you will typically be referred within two weeks through a system known as the two-week wait. All UK healthcare providers are aware of the need to diagnose cancer early, so whatever route you take, you will be in good hands.

Gynaecological cancer and fertility

Treatment for gynaecological cancer can affect fertility. In some cases, fertility preservation treatment may be given to women of reproductive age who want to have children, but it’s not always possible. If a gynaecological cancer patient wants to have children but their cancer can’t be treated with fertility preservation, they may be referred to a fertility specialist who will discuss their options. This can include extracting and storing eggs.

A gynaecological cancer diagnosis doesn’t automatically mean a woman can’t have children naturally, although the conversation surrounding fertility does need to be had prior to treatment commencing.

Gynaecological cancer myths

There are a number of gynaecological cancer myths that many people believe, but they’re untrue. This Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, it’s important to debunk some of the myths surrounding this type of diagnosis.

  • Gynaecological cancer can be passed on between people – this isn’t true. Cancer is not a contagious disease. Cervical, vulval and vaginal cancer can be caused by the HPV virus which is a highly transmissible virus, but it is not the sole cause of cancer and many people contract it and do not develop cancer.
  • Gynaecological cancer only affects older women – this is not true. It is most common in older women, but certain types of gynaecological cancer (such as cervical cancer) are most common in younger women.
  • Cervical screening hurts – this isn’t strictly true. Some women find cervical screenings (formerly called smear tests) uncomfortable, but this is mainly in women who experience vaginal dryness, vaginismus, or endometriosis. Most women feel a bit of pressure, but a conversation with your GP or nurse should highlight any additional steps that may need to be taken to make it more comfortable.
  • Cervical screenings detect all types of gynaecological cancer – this is false. Cervical screenings are only capable of detecting early warning signs of cervical cancer. They are not a comprehensive cancer test, and they cannot detect other types of cancer besides cervical cancer.

Gynaecological cancer post Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer services as a whole, including gynaecological cancer. This has seen delays to treatment or changes to treatment plans, including the frequency at which treatment is administered in order to minimise hospital visits.

Detecting and treating gynaecological cancer early is essential for a better patient outcome. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, our oncology care team will speak to you about any changes to your treatment plan, as well as how Covid-19 may impact any processes or procedures regarding your treatment and its delivery. Changes may be made to protect both you and your healthcare team from the risk of Covid. Depending on the treatment you’re undergoing, you may be immunocompromised, making it all the more important for additional safety steps to be taken.

If you notice any signs of gynaecological cancer, it’s important to speak to your GP and make an urgent appointment as soon as possible.

Gynaecological cancer support 

Being diagnosed with gynaecological cancer is devastating and can severely your mental wellbeing. Treatment, be it proton beam therapy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery, can also take its toll. Patients undergoing treatment at Rutherford Cancer Centres will be supported by their clinical team, but Macmillan is on hand to offer guidance, advice and support to cancer patients and their loved ones, too.

For information on gynaecological cancer diagnoses, treatment and support at Rutherford Cancer Centre, or to discuss a referral from your GP, please contact us.

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