January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month but we are taking the opportunity to look at other cancers that affect women only. There are five gynaecological cancers – womb, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulvar – but awareness of these cancers is very low. January is an important reminder for women to familiarise themselves with the symptoms of all these women-only cancers, some of which are common symptoms and others that are less obvious.
More than 21,000 women in the UK are diagnosed each year with a gynaecological cancer but the awareness of these cancers and their symptoms is very low.
Cervical cancer is a cancer in the cervix, also known as the neck of the womb. This cancer can affect a woman of any age but it most common in women between the ages of 30-45 years, it is very rare in women under the age of 25. In the UK we have a very successful screening programme which is estimated to save up to 4,000 lives each year (The Eve Appeal), but it is still important to be aware of the symptoms:
- Unusual bleeding.
- Pain and discomfort during sex.
Nearly all cancerous cells that form in the cervix are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), but there are additional risk factors that affect a woman’s chance of developing this cancer:
- Immunosuppression medication.
Treatment for this cancer depends on the size and shape of the cancer cell collection.
Womb cancer can be called several different names including uterine (the medical name for a womb) cancer, or endometrial (the lining of your womb) cancer. This is the most common of the five gynaecological cancers. It is more common amongst post-menopausal women therefore the most common symptom of vaginal bleeding should be reported to your GP immediately. Do note that most people with abnormal bleeding will not have a gynaecological cancer.
The most common treatment for this type of cancer is to remove the womb (hysterectomy). When diagnosed early, cancer of the womb can often be cured by surgery alone, without the need for chemotherapy.
Cancer of the ovary is most common in post-menopausal women, although it can affect women of any age. There are many types of ovarian cancer, with epithelial ovarian cancer being the most common form. If ovarian cancer symptoms are identified and the cancer diagnosed at an early stage, the outcome is more optimistic. There are four main ovarian cancer symptoms that are more prevalent in women diagnosed with the condition:
- Increased abdominal size and persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes).
- Persistent pelvic and abdominal pain.
- Unexplained change in bowel habits.
- Difficulty eating and feeling full quickly, or feeling nauseous.
It’s unknown what causes epithelial ovarian cancer but some factors may increase the risk such as age, family history, fertility and endometriosis.
Most women with ovarian cancer will be treated by a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. Doctors will work out the best order for your individual situation based on distribution of disease, symptoms and wellbeing.
Cancer of the vulva (also called vulvar cancer or vulval cancer) is a rare cancer. Around 80% of vulval cancers are diagnosed in women over 60, but there are increasing cases of this cancer in younger women. There are two skin conditions, vulval intraephithelial neoplasa (VPN) and Lichen Sclerosis, that could develop to this type of cancer, but having these conditions doesn’t mean that you have cancer – it is the stage before cancer may develop. Signs and symptoms of this cancer are:
- A lasting itch.
- Pain or soreness.
- Thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of your vulva.
- An open sore or visible growth on the skin.
- A mole that changes shape or colour.
- A lump or swelling in the vulva.
Treatment for vulval cancer depends on factors such as how far the cancer has spread from the area it started. Vulva cancer can be treated by surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy or a combination of all three.
Vagina cancer is the rarest of all gynaecological cancers with just over 250 women in the UK diagnosed each year. It is most commonly diagnosed in women over 60. Cancer of the vagina is a skin cancer and begins when a cells change their growth pattern and structure which develops into a lesion or tumour. Treatment will depend on where the cancer is in your vagina and how far it is spread. Possible treatments include radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
Kim heard about Penny Brohn through her cancer nurse and found talking to our resident doctors in a non-medical environment most beneficial. Read more about Kim’s experience at Penny Brohn’s National Centre.