04/09/2017 5:01 PM AEST | Updated 05/09/2017 10:03 AM AEST

Gynaecological Cancer: Why We Need To Talk About it

Four women will die from a gynaecological cancer in Australia every day.

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Symptoms can be vague, but if they are persistent, see a medical professional.

Gynaecological cancer is an issue Australian women aren't talking about enough. And while it may seem understandable to want to pretend it doesn't exist, or won't affect you, it's exactly this attitude that is killing Australian women.

Sound harsh? Maybe, but so are these statistics.

In Australia, four women will die from a gynaecological cancer every day.

Over 17,000 Australian women are currently living with a gynaecological cancer, and while survival rates across all cancers have improved by 19 percent over the past 25 years, the relative survival rate for all gynaecological cancers has only improved by eight percent.

What does all of this mean?

We need to give gynaecological cancer some serious air time.


What Are The Symptoms Of Gynaecological Cancer?

"The thing about gynaecological cancers is they aren't widely spoken about because there is still taboo about speaking about gynaecological problems," Dr Diana Adams, medical oncologist and working group member of the ANZGOG Research Advisory Committee told HuffPost Australia.

"I think it can be difficult for people to have the conversation, to talk about whether something is normal or not normal. Or even having an understanding of what is not normal to begin with."

Unfortunately, some of the symptoms associated with gynaecological cancers can be quite vague, which further adds to the problem.

"The first thing is to trust your instincts. If you feel something isn't right, pursue it," Adams said.

Did You Know?

There are seven gynaecological cancers - ovarian, uterine (endometrial), vulvar, vaginal, cervical and two rare pregnancy cancers.

"The symptoms can be very vague, but general awareness symptoms can include bloating, a change in bowel habits that's not diet based, pelvic discomfort, pain having sex.

"You might feel you need to go to the toilet more often -- that's referring to either your bowel or bladder -- or bleeding between periods or after you have gone through menopause.

"The other thing for older ladies, though it is a problem for younger women also, is a condition that is caused by the same virus which causes cervical cancer. It results in a persistent itching on the vulva or a lesion, almost like a wart-like lesion on their vulva. The reason it's important is that the same virus that causes cervical cancer can cause the problem on the skin on the vulva, and it can be dismissed as thrush or something similar."

While symptoms such as bloating may seem like just part and parcel of being a woman, Adams said if the symptoms persist, you should go to a doctor.

"I think if women have vague symptoms that [aren't going away], that their doctors need to consider ovarian cancer as a possibility," she said. "I'm saying this not to alarm people, just to alert them."

Quick Australian Gynaecological Cancer Facts:

  • In 2017, 6,073 women will be diagnosed with gynaecological cancer;
  • 16 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer every day in Australia (Cancer Australia);
  • Four women will die from a gynaecological cancer everyday;
  • Over 17000 women are living with a gynaecological cancer in Australia today;
  • 57 percent of women with ovarian cancer will not survive 5 years after diagnosis;
  • Uterine (endometrial) cancer is one of the five most commonly diagnosed cancers in women;
  • There is no test for all gynaecological cancer. There is a pap test for cervical cancer but it does not identify other gynaecological cancers such as ovarian or endometrial.

*Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports as of April 2017.

What Causes Gynecological Cancer?

Women of all ages can be affected a gynaecological cancer, but there are certain factors which can make a woman more 'high risk' than another.

These include increasing age, reproductive history such as child-bearing, having a strong family history of cancers, identified gene mutations, exposure to hormones (natural or medicated), exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the womb, viral infections such as human papilloma virus (HPV), and lifestyle factors such as smoking and those leading to excess body weight.

"One other message I do have for your readers is that obesity now parallels tobacco as the leading modifiable risk factor for cancer," Adams said.

"Nearly five out of ten cases of endometrial cancer are caused by being overweight.

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Obesity is a high risk factor.

"Being overweight and a lack of exercise drives estrogen and a build up in the lining of the womb. Nobody talks about it but you can be putting yourself in a very high risk of getting cancer because you are carrying this extra weight.

"Some of these women aren't 60. Some are 30 or 40 years old who are morbidly obese, and they up losing their womb and losing their ability to have children. It's tragic. And when you think about the fact 60 percent of this country is overweight or obese, it's very concerning."

If you are younger, you need to go out and get immunised and protect yourself against a cancer that is preventable.

Another factor to consider, particularly for younger women, is the relationship between cervical cancer and HPV.

"Cervical cancer is related to the papilloma virus, so I would say the majority of your younger readers should be vaccinating," Adams said. "

"I'm concerned when I hear about [parents] who are concerned that the immunisation could promote promiscuity. To me, when you compare [that concern] to getting cervical cancer or cancer of the vulva... and the same virus can even cause head and neck cancers, through oral sex.

"We are lucky that our government immunises both boys and girls. But I would say, if you are younger, you need to go out and get immunised and protect yourself against a cancer that is preventable."

How Can I Avoid Gynecological Cancer?

As previously mentioned, obesity and HPV can both play a part, so it's highly advisable to lose weight if you are at risk, and for younger men and women to seek out the HPV vaccine.

But the most important thing is to be vigilant with your health and not to ignore symptoms, even if they are embarrassing or don't seem like much. If you are experiencing persistent symptoms -- see a doctor. And if they still don't go away, see another one.

"There is definitely still taboo surrounding gynaecological cancers. In fact, a lot of my work is helping women deal with their guilt over the fact they've had symptoms for a long time but did nothing," Dr Catherine Adams, senior psychologist and spokesperson for Save The Box told HuffPost Australia.

"It's not just guilt. It's shame. There's a lot of shame surrounding it. There's a lot of belief that being diagnosed with gynaecological cancer somehow makes you a dirty or loose woman, and that's just not the case.

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It is advised young people should get the HPV vaccine.

"And it's important to remember GPs are human beings too. They might not be comfortable talking about vaginas or vulvas or ovaries. It often takes women four or five visits to a GP to get a referral. It's hard enough to bring it up at all, but then you have to be really persistent and keep pushing it."

Catherine Adams also pointed out that many of these cancers have better survival rates if diagnosed early, so putting off your check ups could be robbing you of precious time.

"Women don't know what to look out for, what to be aware of, and they are often embarrassed if there is a change so there's a delay in seeking treatment," she said.

"But particularly with endometrial cancer and cervical cancer, if we get in there early we can cure them.

"Every day women are dying in Australia from cancers that are curable, and one of the main reasons is we're not aware of what to look out for."

Find out more about gynaecological cancers and how you can assist by visiting Save The Box.