It’s week three of The Eve Appeal’s #GetLippy campaign and time to talk about CERVICAL CANCER.
Arguably the most ‘famous’ of the gynaecological cancers, cervical cancer is the one that most of us know about. When I first got involved with the Eve Appeal, it was the only one I knew anything about not least of all because I found the charity just after my mum had had a worrying smear test result and we were forced to become aware of signs/symptoms and risks.
Thankfully she is absolutely fine but sadly that is not the case for so many women; in the UK alone 51 women a day are diagnosed with one form of gynaecological cancer, with 21 of them losing their fights. In the first week of May I wrote about VULVAL CANCER, last week we looked at VAGINAL CANCER and this time we turn our attention to the ol’ cervix.
You know the drill by now; I’m going to list the symptoms for cervical cancer, as well as a little explanation and then I am going to put my ten most pressing questions to the Eve Appeal nurse Tracie, who runs an INCREDIBLE service, Ask Eve, which is a free service that allows anyone to email or call with any concerns they might have about their gynaecological health.
Awareness of gynaecological cancers among women in the UK is worryingly low with jut 1 in 7 being able to name a gynae cancer (did you even know vulval cancer was a thing before you clicked on this article???).
More worryingly still it has been found that 42% of 18 to 24 year old women WOULD KEEP SYMPTOMS SUCH AS ABNORMAL VAGINAL BLEEDING TO THEMSELVES.
This culture of silence is seriously endangering our health and so the #GetLippy campaign is asking the UK to speak up and speak out to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancer.
1/3 of women asked would be too embarrassed to see their doctor if they had a problem ‘down below’.
I HATE THIS.
So before we get into it I have just one really important thing to say:
VAGINA IS NOT A DIRTY WORD.
Right, now you’re feeling proud of your lady bits, or at least comfortable enough with them to appreciate that we HAVE to talk about these things, let’s get to it shall we?
What/where is your cervix?
Your cervix is the narrow neck-like passage at the end of your uterus, it is the thing that actually connects your vagina (the tunnel that the babies come out of, we covered this last week) to your uterus (the thing that homes the baby for nine months or, in my case, the coil because I don’t want a baby right now thanks).
- blood spots or light bleeding between periods
- pain during sex
- menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
- increased vaginal discharge
- bleeding after sex
- bleeding after menopause
- pelvic/back pain
If you are anything like me, Dr Google is NOT your friend. Upon reading a list of symptoms like this you will do one of two things: 1) suddenly convince yourself that you have EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE SYMPTOMS and therefore you must be dying 2) do sweet fa with the information you’ve been given because surely these symptoms could be anything.
Neither of these options are sensible. SO. I have asked Tracie, the fabulous nurse behind the fabulous Ask Eve Service (a free service on the Eve Appeal website that allows you to ask a nurse completely confidentially about any of your gynaecological health concerns) to answer my top ten vulval cancer related questions.
The Cervical Cancer Q&A.
1) How do you know if a ‘long period’ is something to go to the doctor? Could it not just be a little longer because of stress or hormones or a million other reasons?
No , no and yes!! So stress is not something that will increase length of period, our period timings are controlled by hormonal influence, but they don’t technically make the length of period longer. The millions of other things could be a number of things post babies; fibroids, endometriosis, peri-menopause, not to forget unexplained “period” after menopause COULD be a signal for womb cancer. Worth getting it checked!
2) Is pain during intercourse something to be frightened of if it is a one off or will it hurt every time? Basically is painful sex ALWAYS something to worry about?
So painful sex is a real disappointment as it’s supposed to be enjoyable! Most women will describe occasions when sex has been painful at some point during their lives. A one off is NOT something to be frightened of, but it might (understandably) put a woman off having sex, so it’s important to work out why so that you canenjoy next time around. It could be lack of lube, or the position for example, which is also simple to remedy. It’s when painful sex is persistent that it’s def time to go to the doctor.
3) Is there anything specific pain wise to look out for because surely pain in your back or pelvis could just be anything?!
You are correct Emily! Pain in your back or pelvis could be due to all sorts….. so if it’s there is a pain that is unexplained (not due to exercise or your posture for example!) then pop to the doctor anyway to get checked out.
4) Can you please explain why cervical cancer smear tests aren’t offered to women under the age of 25?
We get asked this loads at Ask Eve as sadly some women do suffer cervical cancer before the age of 25. So it’s because following tons of research in this area, we know that we get more inaccurate results before the age of 25, so not only is it not useful, it may also may put women off coming to smear tests as they get older. In addition it’s not cost-effective for us a population. Important however to encourage women to report signs and symptoms before the age of 25 ; in this case they will be referred and examined and offered a smear if appropriate.
5) So this ‘increased vaginal discharge’ – how much are we talking about here?! Does it look or smell different?
So this is a case of #knowyournormal! We women all produce a discharge of varying sorts during our menstrual cycle…. it changes through the month as we prepare (potentially) for a pregnancy, the discharge can go from clear, thin to thick, gloppy mucus and that’s all normal… sometimes it can even be a creamy grey colour. The important thing is if you see a “new for you” discharge on your panty liner or in your knickers and it persists, then think about getting it checked out. Smelly ? Hmmmm it shouldn’t be, there are a number of conditions where the PH of the vagina changes and this can produce a smell (often fishy), so it’s worth getting checked out as this can be simply treated.
6) Are there other reasons why we might bleed after sex or during an exam or should we be instantly worried if something like this happens?
Oh yes there sure are! We are really quite delicate creatures when it comes to our cervical and vaginal anatomy… we can have benign, non cancerous conditions that can cause bleeding on contact. V important to talk to the doctor /nurse who is doing your exam if you bleed to ask if they are concerned; GET LIPPY and get the dialogue going so you know what they are thinking and what happens next, ie. appointment/follow up. It doesn’t take all the worry away of course, but knowing the process of what next helps you keep in control of your fears.
7) A bit of spotting or light bleeding is quite normal isn’t it? Will it be continuous? How long after we notice it should we go to the doctor? (That was more than one question wasn’t it?!)
Yes and maybe! So if you have changed contraception for example (pill, coil, implant) then it can take a while for the body to settle into it’s new hormonal state… talk to your doctor and make a plan of when to report to them if you are changing contraception, for example after 2 cycles or three months ? Doing this makes it easier not to feel like a pest …… it’s more like having a communication contract !
8) Although cervical cancer is often caused by the HPV virus which is a sexually transmitted disease, it’s not something we’d contract from having too much sex is it? Is there anyway of preventing it?
Definitely not! So we pretty much all come into contact with the HPV virus (at lease 8 out of 10 of us) at some point in our lives, it’s pretty normal! So preventing it… well for the younger generation of women, we are now offering vaccination against the virus before she becomes sexually active (ie . school girls around the age of 13). Those of us who are older and have already enjoyed sexual activity are likely to have come into contact with the virus so there’s not much point in being vaccinated. Condoms do help to protect a bit, but the don’t cover balls and fingers that give pleasure… so not fool proof !
9) If we were to take any of these symptoms to the doctor, what would the procedure be? What would they do once we got there?
So good for you for talking to your doc if you are not sure. They will listen to you, and depending on your symptoms they will examine you, and then if they are unsure or possibly concerned they will refer to a gynaecologist for advice.
10) Is there anything beyond learning the symptoms that we can do to ensure that we are vigilant enough?
Yes! GET LIPPY!!! Get talking about those symptoms you have learnt about, normalise the conversations about discharge, sex, smears, vaccination, break the taboos!!
So there we go – your (well, mine) cervical cancer questions answered!!
I am so proud to be supporting the Eve Appeal on this fabulous and UTTERLY IMPORTANT CAMPAIGN. The fact is, so many of us actively avoid doing anything for our gynaecological health because of the stigma attached. This is HORRIBLE.
Every day in the UK 58 women are diagnosed with some one type of gynaecological cancer, of those 21 will lose their battle. It such a common story for women to hear about one of these cancers for the first time when they are sitting in a doctor’s room finding out they have one. We HAVE to put an end to this, it’s too important, your health is TOO IMPORTANT.
So this May I am asking you to stand with me. To POUT & SHOUT.
You can do this so easily, simply smack on a bit of lipstick and upload a selfie or a boomerang of yourself with the tag #GetLippy. We need to raise awareness, we need to start shouting about our gynaecological health.
I hope this article shining a light on vaginal cancer has been helpful to you, if you have any questions, please do send them over and I will do my best to get them answered and please come back next week for the next Q&A with Tracie!