Gynaecological cancers are cancers of the reproductive organs of women, which include the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus (womb), cervix (neck of the womb), vagina (birth canal) and vulva (external genitals).
These cancers are not common, particularly in the UK. If we add all the gynaecological cancers that occur each year together, they account for less than half of the cases of breast cancer. However, women may be concerned about the possibility of gynaecological cancers because, unlike breast cancer, the gynaecological organs are not easily visible. It is therefore important for women to be aware of the various screening programmes for gynaecological cancers that exist and to also be aware of the symptoms so that the disease can be detected early where full cure is usually possible. Women should also understand that although gynaecological cancers are more common in older women who have usually gone through the menopause, they can occur in younger women also.
What are the symptoms of gynaecological cancer?
There are four main gynaecological cancers (cancer of the ovaries, womb, cervix and vulva) and the symptoms vary according to the type. There are however some common symptoms which should prompt you to see your doctor. Although it is not possible to list every single symptom that might indicate a gynaecological cancer the list below may help to guide you.
1. Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Bleeding from the vagina should always be considered abnormal if it happens when you are not having a period. Different types of abnormal vaginal bleeding inlcude:
- Bleeding after the menopause has taken place (post-menopausal)
- Bleeding after sex – post coital bleeding
- Bleeding between periods (intermenstrual bleeding)
2. Abnormal vaginal discharge
All women will experience vaginal discharge that varies during the menstrual cycle. This type of discharge is clear and does not smell. It may be particularly noticeable during ovulation (when the egg is shed from the ovary). Most women will be familiar with their own usual vaginal discharge and you should report any discharge that is different from normal to your doctor.
3. Abdominal swelling
All women will experience abdominal bloating and swelling at some point in their lives. Common minor bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome can cause this symptom. However, if you are a woman in her late forties or older and experience this symptom for the first time, it may be due to ovarian cancer.
4. Itchy vulva
The vulva is the skin-covered area between your legs. The skin on the vulva can be quite sensitive and itching is quite common, particularly in older women. Itchy skin on the vulva can be due to dryness, eczema or psoriasis, all common skin conditions. It is important however that you do not ignore itching, especially of it does not go away after simple remedies, as it may be a sign of vulval cancer. Vulval cancer usually causes a lump or an ulcer but itching can also be a symptom.