How much do you know about your vagina? Do you know anything about your vulval? Do you know, for example, that the thing you probably thought was your vagina was actually your vulva and that all this time you’ve probably been referring to your vulval as your vagina because no one took the time to explain to you that the vagina was the bit INSIDE your body and the vulval was the bit on the outside?
No?! Don’t worry, you’re normal. No one knows nearly enough about the female anatomy, least of all the females to whom this anatomy belongs. (Statistics found that less than one third of women can correctly label all six parts on a diagram of the reproductive system!).
I’m here to help. 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.
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.
Right. Week one, let’s get into it.
What/where is your vulva.
Not the stupidest question in the world, when I first started working with the Eve Appeal I am not ashamed to admit that I didn’t have the foggiest that my vagina was actually my vulva – and by that I mean, that the world ‘vagina’ did not extend to the external part of the female sexual organs – that part is actually, you guessed it, the vulval.
- a persistant itch in the vagina
- pain, soreness or tenderness in the vulva
- raised and thickened patches of skin that can be red, white or dark
- a lump or wart like growth on the vulva
- bleeding from the vulva or blood stained vaginal discharge between periods
- an open sore in the vulva
- a burning pain when passing urine
- a mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
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 Vulval Cancer Q&A:
1) Could there be other, more likely reasons for a persistent itch in the vulva? An STD or the wrong pants maybe?
Yes! The wrong pants/panty – liners/sanitary towels/change in washing powder/change in soap/shower gel. It could be an inflammatory skin condition (there are lots!)…. and yes, it could be an STD, but whatever the cause, it is always good to get checked out so you can get treated and feel more comfortable!
2) With the pain and the tenderness, how long would we have to experience this for before we sought help?
No point in being in pain if you are unsure of the cause and it is not improving over time. It’s best to get checked out, whatever it is there is no point in being in pain!
3) Would it be a pain to touch or more of a persistent ache? Basically there are LOADS of different kinds of pain, which are the ones to stress about?
Essentially it’s more painful to touch, but not always. A persistent ache is not really much of a signal.
4) A burning pain when peeing, couldn’t that just be a UTI or the wrong shower gel in the wrong bits or something?
Burning when peeing, yes it certainly could be an UTI, but if it’s persistent then that is absolutely another reason to go to the GP.
5) A lump on the vulva is surely more likely to be an ingrown hair than cancer right? I’ve taken a couple of those to the doc before now, do you think they think I am time wasting?
Right?! Most lumps won’t be cancer… BUT doctors would really rather see a benign condition than miss a cancer, so by taking any lump to the doctor you are sure not to be time wasting!
6) Blood in vaginal discharge could be mistaken for a period or a bit of spotting no? How do you tell it apart?
Or when is “a period not a period”? If you are bleeding when you are not expecting to, it’s probably not a period, if this is happening to you, it is time to get checked out!
7) As with any mole, how do you *know* when it is time to worry? (You’d be forgiven for not even noticing one down there for a while and then freaking out when you finally find it wouldn’t you?!)
Ah ha! You make a good point, so we encourage every woman to get out her mirror and check out her vulva skin #knowyournormal!! By doing this you know that if there is a change, especially if accompanied by discomfort then it is definitely time to get it checked out!
8) How many of these symptoms would we need to be experiencing before we took them to the doctor or could we go with just one of them?
If you are worried about any of them, then do go to the doctor and get checked… I’m like a stuck record I know, but it’s so much better to find out what it is than to leave it and hope it goes away on its own.
9) Who is most at risk of vulval cancer? Is there any one age group in particular who should be more vigilant?
So vulval cancer tends to affect older women more than younger (menopause onwards). HOWEVER I have looked after many younger women too so it is best to be vigilant at every age. Risk factors are smoking, the HPV (wart virus) and lichen sclerosis a benign (but very uncomfortable ) skin condition that left untreated can develop into an early vulval cancer.
10) If we were to go to the doctors with any of these symptoms, what would the doctor do? What is the procedure?
So the doctor would listen to your history (ie. what you have been experiencing), have a look at the skin area affected. They may be able to tell straight away what the skin condition is and give you creams/ointments to treat it. If they are unsure they will make a referral for you to see a gynaecologist or dermatologist.
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 vulval 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!