With fewer women than ever attending their smear tests, gynaecological cancer is affecting more than 21,000 of us a year, according to the Eve Appeal - and while cervical cancer is a part of that, it doesn't make up the whole picture.
There are five different gynaecological cancers: Womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal. Each one has different symptoms - although there are crossovers - and as familiar as we may be with our bodies, they can be easy to miss.
It's understandable that we would pass many signs of gynaecological cancers off as hormonal changes, so how should we know what to be looking for, and when should we seek medical help?
Tim Woodman, Medical Director for Bupa UK, shared with Cosmopolitan UK the bodily changes that could require a visit to your GP:
1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
“If you’ve noticed any bleeding between periods, bleeding after intercourse or post-menopausal bleeding, it’s important to make your GP aware," Tim explains.
“Whilst there are many causes of abnormal bleeding or discharge, this could be a sign of cervical and womb cancer.
“But remember that abnormal bleeding or discharge is also very common and many women experience at some point in their lives when there is no cause for concern.”
2. Changes in your bathroom habits
“Bowel habits vary a lot in different people, but if you notice persistent changes to your toilet habits for a few weeks, such as gas, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation, you should speak to your doctor.
“Bowel problems are very common and usually they’re not related to cancer, however it’s important to get these checked out just in case.”
3. Constant fatigue
“Ordinarily, if you are feeling tired, a little rest is all you need to recover. However, if you’ve noticed that you’re feeling constantly fatigued and it’s preventing you from working or carrying out your daily activities, you should mention this to your GP as this could be a symptom of ovarian cancer.”
4. A bloated tummy
“If you’ve been feeling bloated most days for the last few weeks, you should tell your GP.
“Chances are it’s nothing serious and could be caused by other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or pre-menstrual stress (PMS), but you should still get this checked out as it can also be a symptom of ovarian cancer.
“At your appointment, your doctor should gently feel your tummy and ask you about your symptoms and general health.”
5. Lumps, bumps and ulcers
“A common symptom of vulval cancers are lumps and bumps around your genitals. If you’ve noticed pain, a lump or growth on the vulva, you should get this checked out.
“While it’s highly unlikely to be the result of cancer, these changes should be investigated. It can be daunting or make you feel embarrassed to discuss these types of symptoms, however it’s important to make your doctor aware of these changes as early as possible.
“If you’re worried about mentioning this to your doctor, it might make you feel more at ease discussing your symptoms with a female medical professional or writing down your symptoms. And remember, you won’t be the first person they’ve seen with similar concerns.”
6. Abdominal or pelvic pain
“If you’ve been experiencing frequent pain or discomfort in your pelvic or abdominal area for a few weeks, you should speak to your doctor.
“Pain in these areas can be caused by many different conditions, but again, it’s important to get this checked out by a medical professional just to be on the safe side.”
These pains are considered to be symptoms of womb, ovarian and cervical cancers.
Since many of the gynaecological cancer symptoms are likely to be something we've all experienced from time to time, it's important to remember that there could be many reasons behind the bodily changes – and there's every chance they're nothing to worry about.
However, as with any symptoms that last longer than a few weeks, it's always worth visiting your GP to investigate and put your mind at ease.
Tim explains: “Whatever the symptoms, when you notice a change in your body it can be daunting to speak about, but your doctor should help to provide you with peace of mind or signpost you to the most appropriate support and if necessary, treatment.”
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