A Medical Expert's Guide To The 5 Different Gynaecological Cancers

A gynaecologist talks us through symptoms, detection, & treatment.

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September 30 marked the end of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, an initiative created by The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) that aims to break taboo and encourage more people to talk openly about their gynaecological health. According to the FWC, every five minutes, someone will be diagnosed with one of the five gynaecological cancers and over 33,000 will die from a gynaecological cancer this year. In short, it's crucial to educate yourself about the five types of gynaecological cancers and what the symptoms are.

Most of us will be aware of cervical and ovarian cancers, but can you name the other three other gynaecological cancers? While vulval, vaginal, and endometrial cancer may not be talked about as much, they still affect thousands of people and are therefore important to acknowledge. While Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month has now passed, this is a subject we should always be talking about, and here's what you should know to start...

What are the five types of gynaecological cancers?

Many of us may be unaware that there are actually five different types of gynaecological cancer. The most well known are cervical cancer and ovarian cancer, but what about the other three? Here, gynaecologist and expert consultant at hygiene brand Intimina Dr Shree Datta touches upon five different types of cancers to be aware of:

Endometrial cancer: cancer of the womb.

Cervical cancer: cancer in the cervix.

Ovarian cancer: cancer on the ovaries.

Vulval cancer: cancer of the vulva, which affects a person's external genitals such as the labia minora and labia majora and the clitoris.

Vaginal cancer: cancer that affects the vagina.

What are the symptoms of each?

Dr Shree notes that there are many symptoms to look out for, some shared, and others more unique. Here are the most important ones to be aware of:

Endometrial cancer: "This generally presents early, with abnormal vaginal bleeding – for example, postmenopausal bleeding or heavy periods. Because it's often detected early, it can be easier to treat and to cure fully."

Cervical cancer: "Symptoms include: Inter-menstrual bleeding, post-coital bleeding, postmenopausal bleeding, blood-stained vaginal discharge, and pelvic pain."

"Then in advanced disease, they can be: backache, leg pain (due to nerve involvement), haematuria (due to extension of tumour into bladder), bowel symptoms, malaise and renal failure (ureteric involvement)."

Ovarian cancer: "This is most usually seen in postmenopausal [people]. It can be difficult to detect, with non-specific symptoms such as bloating, change in appetite or bowel symptoms as well as abdominal swelling or weight loss."

Vulval cancer: "This type of cancer relates to skin changes seen around the vaginal opening, right up to the anus. It may be associated with wart virus and smoking, with visible skin changes, irritation, ulceration or bleeding."

Vaginal cancer: "This [type of cancer] is relatively uncommon, often presenting with vaginal discharge or bleeding/pain."

Which are identified through a smear test?

We all know about smear tests and the importance of having one every three years in order to detect any abnormalities. However, the smear test does not detect all five types of cancer.

"Smear tests are recommended every three years from the age of 25 to 50 and are used to primarily detect HPV, cervical abnormalities, and cervical cancer," says Dr Shree. "In a minority of cases they may also show up endometrial cancer, but it does not test primarily for this."

It's therefore important to keep an eye out for unusual symptoms as previously mentioned, and to visit a GP if you are worried about any of them. Your doctor will then usually examine you and refer you for further tests if needs be.

For concerns of vaginal cancer, you may be referred for scans, a pelvic examination, or a colposcopy, according to the NHS.

Ovarian cancer may be detected by a blood test, ultrasound scan, or a number of other scans such as a CT scan or biopsy.

Endometrial cancer can be found through things like transvaginal ultrasound scans and biopsies.

How does treatment for each differ?

"This really varies according to the stage and type of cancer but treatment can involve surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy," says Dr Shree.

The most important thing is to catch it as early as possible, so being aware of symptoms, and visiting your GP is you are concerned is crucial.

How can you lessen your chances of getting a gynecological cancer?

First of all, it's important to understand that some of these cancers are hereditary, and therefore cannot be 'prevented.' "A family history is important particularly when considering endometrial and ovarian cancer," says Dr Shree. "A history of breast cancer can also affect your risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer."

However, there are ways to lessen your chances of getting certain cancers, such as lifestyle choices like avoiding smoking and practising safe sex/getting a jab to avoid HPV. "Smoking and HPV infection increases your risk of cervical and vulval cancer," says Shree. "A raised BMI can also increase your risk of ovarian cancer."

She continues: "A healthy balanced lifestyle and attending screening appointments such as your cervical smear tests and mammography is key. Keep a diary of abnormal symptoms such as heavy periods or bleeding in between your periods," she recommends, which can be useful for such appointments.

Dr Shree also adds: "In some cases, where there is a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer you may consider monitoring your ovaries or even removal."

For more information on gynaecological cancers, you can visit:

The Foundation For Women's Cancer

Cancer Research UK

– The NHS' individual pages for cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, vulval cancer, vaginal cancer, and endometrial cancer.

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