Gynaecological cancers make up approximately 10% of all cancer cases and cancer deaths in New Zealand.
Approximately 1000 women are diagnosed with one of the five main forms of gynaecological cancer each year – ovarian, cervical, endometrial (or uterine), vulval and vaginal.
Of this number, roughly 400 women die, the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation (NZGCF) reports.
Studies show that few women are able to accurately identify symptoms of gynaecological cancer.
The more we know what to look for, the quicker we are able to seek medical advice and the more likely we are to catch cancer early on and possibly eradicate it.
1 woman dies of ovarian cancer every 48 hours, the highest death rate among all the gynaecological cancers.
Ovarian cancer is considered one of the trickiest cancers to catch early, because the symptoms can be vague and easily confused with other problems. This is why early diagnosis is so vital.
Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:
- Abdominal bloating, indigestion or nausea
- Changes in appetite, such as a loss of appetite or feeling full sooner
- Pressure in the pelvis or lower back
- A more frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation
- Changes in bowel movements
- Increased abdominal girth
- Tiredness or low energy
- Changes in menstruation
Endometrial (uterine) cancer
According to the NZGCF, cases of endometrial cancer appear to be increasing in women under 40 years of age in New Zealand.
Symptoms of endometrial cancer are:
- Abnormal bleeding from the vagina. This is the most common symptom and most cases are identified because of irregular or post-menopausal bleeding.
- Pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen
- Pain during sex
- Your womb is enlarged and feels swollen although this will be something which your doctor will be able to see
- Abnormal bleeding: after menopause and between period
- Heavier periods than normal
- Abnormal discharge: more than normal or strong smelling
Regular smear tests can detect abnormalities on the cervix that could turn into cervical cancer.
Smear tests are recommended every three years for women over the age of twenty, and according to the National Cervical Screening Program regular smears can reduce a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer by 90%.
Women can also choose to receive a series of vaccinations to help prevent cervical cancer.
Common symptoms of cervical cancer:
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting after periods have stopped (after menopause)
- Bleeding or spotting after sex
- Unusual and persistent discharge from your vagina
- Persistent pain in your pelvis
- Pain during sex
Vulval cancer is one of the more rare gynaecological cancers, particularly for women under the age of 40. The HPV vaccination lowers the risk of developing this type of cancer.
Symptoms can include:
- A lasting itch, pain or soreness and thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva
- Open sore or growth visible on the skin
- Burning pain when you pass urine
- Vaginal discharge or bleeding
- A mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
- Lump or swelling in the vulva
Vaginal cancer is a rare disease which occurs when malignant cancer cells develop in the vagina. When it spreads beyond the vagina, it is much more difficult to treat so early diagnosis is vital.
Common symptoms include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding after sex
- Watery, blood-stained vaginal discharge
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse and pain
- A lump or mass in your vagina that you or your doctor can feel
- Problems with passing urine (such as blood in the urine, the need to pass urine frequently and the need to pass urine at night)
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain in the pelvic area (the lower part of the abdomen between the hip bones)
- Pain in the back or legs
- Constipation or abnormal bowel function
Rare gynaecological cancers
In addition to the five main gynaecological cancers, there are two more rare ones.
Gestational Trophoblastic Disease (GTD) occurs when there is an unusual growth of uterine cells that would normally form the placenta during pregnancy. This is treatable and many women with GTD can have regular pregnancies.
Primary Peritoneal Cancer (PPC) involves abnormal cell growth in an area of the body. It is closely linked to epithelial ovarian cancer and women can still develop PPC even if their ovaries have been removed.
If concerned, consult your doctor
Gynaecological cancers can be difficult to diagnose so it’s important to be aware of all the symptoms. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have cancer, but it is important to consult your doctor if they are abnormal, frequent or you feel concerned.
Try keep a log of when and how often these symptoms occur as it will help your doctor gain a better understanding.