Each year in Aotearoa New Zealand more than 1,000 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer.
More than 475 women die from a gynaecological cancer each year. Despite these statistics, gynaecological cancers remain a bit of a taboo subject due to the embarrassment for some of talking about their ‘private bits’. However, early detection of gynaecological cancers can save lives, so the more awareness and knowledge there is about it the better.
Gynaecological cancers are cancers that form in the female reproductive system. They begin in your body when cells grow abnormally. There are 5 main types of gynaecological cancers:
Here are some things you can do to help reduce the risk of gynaecological cancer:
1. Don’t ignore symptoms
It’s important to find gynaecological cancers early when treatment can be the most effective. Symptoms depend on where the cancer is but can include things like:
- unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge between periods, after sex or after menopause
- pain in your tummy (abdomen)
- pain during sex
- itchy skin around the opening to your vagina
- difficulty peeing
- changes in bowel habits.
Having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but it’s important to get checked by your GP as it could be a warning sign of a gynaecological cancer or other health problems.
2. Get vaccinated and use a condom
The HPV vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus that causes several different cancers in women, including cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus. It also protects against cancers of the anus and penis in men (and possibly throat cancers in both men and women). Having safe sex by using condoms also reduces your risk of exposure to HPV.
3. Have a regular cervical smear
Cervical screening is a test for abnormal changes to the cells in your cervix (the lower end of your uterus/womb), usually because of having HPV. Treatment can be given before abnormal cells turn into cancer. It’s usually carried out every three years and you should get them done regularly even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.
4. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly
Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly has many physical benefits and reduces your risk of developing some cancers. Endometrial cancer is strongly linked to obesity so maintaining a healthy weight is important.
5. Quit smoking
Smoking harms your body in many ways and increases the risk of developing many types of cancers. Getting suport to quit reduces your risk of developing not only cancer, but other health conditions such as heart disease and stroke.
6. Know your family history
Inherited mutations of the BRCA gene increases the risk of female ovarian and breast cancers (and to a lesser degree, other cancers in men and women). A family history of cancer can indicate an increased risk factor and you may be eligible for gene testing. If you carry these gene mutations there are options available to increase screening and, in some cases, have your breasts and ovaries removed as a safeguard.