Vagina vagina vagina. Hello, and welcome to an article all about vaginas and VAGINAL cancer. Here I go again, writing about vaginas like I’m obsessed with them or something (the third time in a week has got to be some sort of blogging record?).
There’s no stopping me, for the month of May I am working with the Eve Appeal *the fabulous gynaecological cancer charity* on their #GetLippy campaign, helping to smash taboos, educate and inform people about their gynaecological health.
Last week I wrote about vulval cancer, the vulva, as you’ll remember, being THE EXTERNAL BIT. As in, the thing that you have probably been referring to as your vagina for your whole life, the bit that you can SEE.
Your vagina is the bit INSIDE. It’s the bit I wrote about last week after Huda Beauty had the audacity to suggest we should be putting lemons up there. *rolling eye emoji*. It’s the bit that babies come out of. Look at us go, learning all the time.
Every week between now and June, with the help of the Eve Appeal’s resident nurse Tracie, I will be looking at each of the five gynaecological cancers, going through the symptoms, myth cracking and getting every question you can think of answered.
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.
Use it. Talk about it. Take god damn pride in the thing. Get to know your normal, it might save your life.
Good. Now, week two, let’s go.
What/where is your vagina?
As I explained earlier, the vagina is the bit inside your body. By that I mean it is the passage, tube, whatever you want to call it, that connects your external genitals (your vulva) to the cervix of the uterus. If you didn’t know that, don’t feel bad, before I started working with the Eve Appeal I didn’t know that the two things were different.
- unusual vaginal bleeding eg. after sex or after the menopause
- watery vaginal discharge
- a lump or mass in your vagina
- painful urination
- frequent urination
- pelvic 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 Vaginal Cancer Q&A:
1) How long do you have to experience ‘unusual’ bleeding for before you should seek medical help? That does ‘unusual’ bleeding even mean?
So what’s “ unusual “ to you? So basically, any bleeding that’s not a period or due to changing contraception (e.g. the pill, or the coil, or the implant) is unusual. As is bleeding after the menopause. If you are changing contraception why not make a diary for the next two/three cycles or the bleeding you are experiencing, this way if something is unusual you’ve got something useful to show your doctor.
2) Are there any other reasons why a woman might bleed after sex/during an exam or is it always something to worry about?
Oh yes there sure are! We are really quite delicate creatures when it comes to our cervical and vaginal anatomy so we can have benign, non cancerous conditions that can cause bleeding on contact. It is very important to talk to the doctor/nurse who is doing your exam if you bleed to ask if they are concerned. Make sure to 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 keeping an eye on your body and knowing a process of what next helps you keep in control of your fears.
3) Should we be checking for lumps inside our vaginas??? How do we even know how to start/what we are looking for here?
Our vagina’s are amazing!!! So we suggest trying to #knowyournormal. Try to involve a friend (or lover?) if you feel comfortable to do so. It’s all about knowing your own anatomy, we don’t suggest self–examining on a regular basis (like breast checks) but encourage you to feel comfortable with exploring your vaginal anatomy so if you do experience discomfort/pain in this part of your anatomy you would be able to self–check and report to your doctor. We agree, of course it is hard to define “normal” , but suggest if you have an area of skin that feels uncomfortable or hurts… go get checked out.
4) Typically how long would the constipation last? Surely there are LOADS of reasons we get constipated?
To be honest yes, there are tons and tons of reasons for constipation, as a symptom on it’s own I would not worry about this one.
5) How frequent is frequent urination? Some of us just have very small bladders!
Yes we do and some of us just get into the habit of peeing often , when perhaps we don’t need too (I’m so guilty of this!). So once again it’s not about how often you pee, it’s more something to worry about if you experience a change from your normal routine…
6) Can you explain a little bit more about this discharge please? How often would we expect to find it? When should we start to worry?
So this is another 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 to thin to thick to gloppy mucus and it’s all normal… sometimes it can 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 shouldn’t be, but 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 that checked out as this can be simply treated.
7) What age is vaginal cancer most likely to affect you? Is there any point at which we should be most vigilant?
So vaginal cancer is SOOOOOO rare, that’s worth knowing! It is more common in the older woman though.
8) Is this the sort of thing that would be noticed at a routine smear test or examination?
I LOVE THIS QUESTION! The answer should be yes! We at The Eve Appeal are putting together a teaching package for nurses who carry out smears on vulva an vaginal cancer to help improve their knowledge on these rare cancers.
9) Are the symptoms more likely to be anything else or should we always take these straight to the doctor?
The symptoms are most likely NOT to be cancer, but unexplained symptoms of a benign condition should still be checked out so as I’ve said before, it is always worth going to the doctor.
10) If we did you got the doctor with any of these symptoms, what could we expect? What examinations would they typically carry out?
So your doctor will listen, may do a gentle examination, possibly take a vaginal swab (like a long cotton bud gently inserted and then taken out of the vagina) and they may test your wee. If they see something they are not sure about they will refer you to a gynaecologist.