Be aware of these common gynaecological cancer myths and misconceptions
September marks gynaecological cancer awareness month, bringing with it an opportunity to reflect on the ways gynaecological cancer can touch our lives, and the signs and symptoms to be aware of.
Each year, more than 21,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer – the five main types being cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulval. And yet, a study from Bupa Health Clinics reports that one in 10 brits miss or delay potentially life-saving cancer screenings.
One common example of a gynaecological cancer screening is the cervical screening, or ‘smear test’. Although very clinically straightforward – for some, cervical screenings can be intimidating and anxiety-inducing, particularly for those who have a history of abuse or assault. Speaking to a mental health professional about your fears of this, and other, screenings can be incredibly helpful and affirming, as can reading about other’s experiences and speaking to others in your life who have had the procedure – and supportive steps such as these are worth taking, as it’s estimated that if everyone attended screening regularly, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented.
But beyond attending regular screenings, what are the key facts about gynaecological cancer that we should all note? Here, Dr Petra Simic, Medical Director at Bupa UK, debunks six common myths, and shares the symptoms to be aware of.
Six gynaecological cancer myths, debunked
Myth 1: Gynaecological cancer only affects older women
While it’s true that most gynaecological cancers affect older women (with the highest rates seen in women in their 70s or older), there is one cancer that is different. Cervical cancer is more common in younger women, which is why the HPV vaccination and the cervical screening programme is so important.
If you have been through the menopause, you may feel that you no longer need to worry about gynaecological cancers now that your reproductive organs are no longer active. However, this is a common misconception and menopausal women should be more aware of new gynaecological symptoms.
Younger women may worry about gynaecological cancer, yet it’s very rare to get gynaecological cancers during your reproductive years.
Myth 2: There are no early warning signs of gynaecological cancer
There are lots of early warning signs, so it’s best to get to know your body and reach out to your GP if you spot any unusual changes. You should tell them about any abnormal bleeding, pains, bloating, or changes in your bowel habits.
Myth 3: I have no symptoms, so I don’t need to get screened
We have an excellent cervical cancer screening programme, which can detect early abnormalities which can lead to cervical cancer.
Even if you don’t have any concerns, you must attend your checks as these can detect abnormalities before you start showing any symptoms. Early detection is key to effectively preventing and treating cancers; attending all appointments – even if you’re feeling well – is vital.
Myth 4: A cervical screening test is painful
It’s a common myth that a cervical screening test (previously known as a smear test) is a painful procedure. For some, it can be uncomfortable, especially if you have endometriosis, vaginismus (when your vagina suddenly becomes tight), or vaginal dryness. It’s important to explain any worries you have to your healthcare professional, as they should take additional steps to make the experience less stressful.
Myth 5: If I am worried I can go for a smear test, which will rule out any cancer
No, this is not the case. The cervical screening test only looks for signs that you may be at risk of cervical cancer. It is not a cancer test, nor does it assess the health of your vulva, vagina, womb or ovaries. A cervical screening test is only suitable if you have no symptoms of concern.
If you are having unusual bleeding, pain or other symptoms you should discuss this with a health care professional, who will decide with you what steps need to be taken to assess your gynaecological health.
Myth 6: Seeing the doctor about gynaecological issues is embarrassing
Do not worry, every doctor or nurse in your local clinic will have seen more vaginas than you could ever believe! They understand that everyone is an individual and, whilst you may feel uncomfortable discussing your intimate areas, they’re not there to judge you. Whatever your concern is – whether it’s problems with sex, vaginal bleeding, or discharge - they are there to support you.
Performing intimate examinations is part of your doctor or nurse’s everyday activities, and they are happy to do them, to help keep you healthy and identify any problems you may be having. Try and be as open and honest with your healthcare professional about your symptoms or concerns, as this will enable them to give you the best care they can.
What are the most common symptoms?
Pain or discomfort in your abdomen or pelvis, having a swollen abdomen, constantly feeling bloated, and unexplained changes in your bowel habits (constipation, excess wind, or diarrhoea).
Many other conditions can mimic ovarian cancer, so it can be hard to know if your symptoms are related to your ovaries. If you are having persistent abdominal or gut problems - particularly if you are menopausal - remember to ask your doctor to consider whether your ovaries could be the cause.
Uterine (womb) cancer
Unexpected bleeding from your vagina, especially if you’ve been through the menopause. Heavy or erratic periods during the perimenopause, or unusual discharge can also be a symptom of womb cancer, and your doctor may need to rule this out with further tests.
Although this is not a common cancer, it can cause painful intercourse, erratic bleeding, new discharge, or a change in the vaginal tissues, such as a new persistent lump.
Pain, soreness, or tenderness in the vulva, raised and thickened patches of skin that can be red, white, or dark, an open sore in the vulva, and a burning pain when passing urine.
Irregular vaginal bleeding, in between periods or after sex. Persistent discharge can also be a sign, as well as painful sex.
Currently, cervical cancer is the only type of gynaecological cancer that there are effective screening programmes for, which is why it’s important to have regular cervical screening. The cervical screening test is offered to all women aged between 25 and 64, every three to five years (depending on your age).
Cervical cancer is linked to exposure to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), hence the HPV vaccination is a key measure to prevent cervical cancer. If you are eligible for the vaccine you should ensure that you receive it.
If you are worried about your gynaecological health, speak to your GP.
For support for working through anxiety relating to attending screenings, and anything else, connect with a counsellor using counselling-directory.org.uk