How to Protect Yourself From Gynaecological Cancers
September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, aiming to raise the profile of cancers affecting the female reproductive system.
21,000 women are diagnosed with gynae cancers each year in the UK, and on average, 21 women sadly die every day as a result. One problem is symptoms from gynae cancers may be missed because some women aren’t confident in spotting them, confusing them with symptoms from other conditions. Many women are unaware of the workings of their intimate anatomy, with gynaecological and healthy menstrual awareness education not compulsory on the school curriculum until last year.
Hopefully the next generation will know their bodies better and be more empowered to look after their reproductive health, but until then, here’s a rundown of the gynae cancers so you can be aware of your risk.
Women’s Reproductive Cancers
Gynae cancers comprise five main types of cancer affecting a woman’s reproductive organs – cervical, ovarian, endometrial or uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
- Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer has its origins in changes in cells in the part of the uterus opening into the vagina. Cells first become precancerous, meaning they’re more likely to change into cancerous cells. These types of changes in your cells don’t usually produce any symptoms, meaning it’s important to have regular smear tests, known as pap tests, to detect any abnormal cells early on.
If the cancer progresses, it produces symptoms such as vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding or odour, pelvic pain and bleeding after sex.
Cervical cancer is connected with a sexually transmitted virus known as HPV – it’s estimated 99% of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV infection. Women who smoke are at increased risk, as are those who don’t consume many fruit and vegetables and women with a low intake of B vitamins and vitamin A.
Because cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women below the age of 35, girls in the UK are now routinely vaccinated to prevent infection by the HPV virus.
- Ovarian Cancer
This is the seventh most common female cancer, with 7500 women being diagnosed in the UK each year.
Your ovaries are where your eggs are produced. The initial symptoms of this cancer are often put down to other conditions so it may not be picked up early. They include abdominal bloating, changes in usual bowel or bladder patterns and pressure or a feeling of fullness in the pelvis.
Ovarian cancer may be connected with an elevated level of a protein called CA125 in the blood, and a test for this protein is sometimes used to screen for ovarian cancer in its early stages, or to monitor treatment.
The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, and with a family history of the disease. Starting your periods at an early age and having a late menopause is associated with increased risk, as is smoking.
- Endometrial (Uterine) Cancer
This type of cancer develops in the cells lining the womb or uterus. It’s the fourth most common cancer in women, tending to develop after the menopause, with over 9000 cases diagnosed annually. The number of women developing endometrial cancer has increased by 50% since the early 1990s.
The most common warning signs are abnormal or irregular vaginal bleeding even after the menopause, spotting or a brownish discharge. Risk factors include obesity, diabetes and taking oestrogen-only HRT.
- Vaginal Cancer
The rarest of the gynaecological cancers, this cancer begins in the muscular tube connecting your uterus with the outside world. Most cancers affecting the vagina develop in cells in its lining.
Around 300 women are diagnosed in the UK each year. It’s seen most commonly in women between 50 and 70 years old, and is also connected with HPV virus infections.
- Vulval Cancer
Your vulva includes the outer and inner lips of your vagina, the clitoris and the opening of the vagina. Symptoms include itching of the vulva, changes in skin pigmentation, a bump or lump, open sore or ulcer, pain and burning, or unusual bleeding and discharge. Like vaginal cancer, women who’ve had HPV are more at risk.
Protect Yourself Against Gynae Cancers
If you’re worried about any symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP.
Functional Medicine aims to prevent cancer by maximising the health of your body. Supporting your immune system by optimum nutrition and lifestyle measures reduces the likelihood of cancerous cells multiplying out of control. Also important is to decrease your exposure to substances capable of damaging cells. A plentiful supply of antioxidants – the pigments found in plant foods – is incredibly useful to guard against DNA damage.
Functional tests alongside a consultation can help pinpoint any deficiencies in essential nutrients, while lifestyle and nutritional strategies can not only reduce cancer risk but also complement conventional treatments for anyone already suffering from cancer.
Jo Gamble has undertaken an Integrative Medicine Fellowship in integrative cancer care. Contact Jo here for more information.