Recognise The Early Symptoms Of Gynaecological Cancers
We are so happy to be collaborating with the Australian Gynaecological Cancer Foundation (AGCF) to raise awareness this September around cancers that affect women's bodies.
It’s important for women to be intimately connected to their own bodies, so to be aware of any changes that may present possible symptoms.
This Journal post is for you to use as a guide in monitoring your body with love and care. Learn to recognise early symptoms.
You know your body best.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF GYNAECOLOGICAL CANCERS?
This is the commonest gynaecological cancer and most commonly occurs in post-menopausal women. When it occurs in premenopausal women, it is often associated with the hereditary Lynch Syndrome, which is also associated with hereditary bowel cancer.
The typical early symptom of endometrial cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding, and the bleeding occurs early in the course of the disease. As most patients are postmenopausal, the bleeding usually causes women to seek medical advice. Most postmenopausal bleeding is caused by either the use of hormone replacement therapy or by atrophy of the vagina from lack of hormones, but endometrial cancer always needs to be excluded.
Some confusion arises when the abnormal bleeding occurs in pre- or perimenopausal women, and both patient and physician delay may occur. Bleeding between periods is usually assumed to be “hormonal” initially, but if it persists, medical advice should be sought.
Menopause should be associated with both decreasing frequency and decreasing volume of menstrual bleeding. Any increase in the frequency or volume of the bleeding should arouse suspicion.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
This is the second most common gynaecological cancer and is the most difficult to diagnose early. Much research is ongoing to find a screening test for ovarian cancer.
Unfortunately, without a screening test, the early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is more likely to be related to the aggressiveness of the cancer, than to the early recognition of symptoms. Both early and late stage disease usually present with pelvic or abdominal pain and abdominal swelling (or bloating). With early disease, the abdominal swelling is caused by the large ovarian tumour, whereas with advanced disease, the swelling is caused by a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, called ascites. The ascites usually reflects spread of the cancer to the peritoneum. This usually occurs early in the course of the more common and aggressive ovarian cancers, and the tumour itself is usually still quite small. Other symptoms, such as urinary frequency or urgency, may be caused by pressure on the bladder.
- Abdominal bloating
- Increased abdominal size
- Pain in the abdomen or pelvis
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling full quickly after eating
- Needing to pee more often, or more urgently
- Changes in bowel habits, including constipation
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Unexplained fatigue
Fallopian tube cancer
This has now been shown to frequently be the origin of many ovarian cancers, particularly those in women with the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome. However, tubal cancers can occasionally occur independent of any spread to the ovary. The classical triad of symptoms and signs associated with fallopian tube cancer is watery vaginal discharge, pelvic pain and a pelvic mass.
- swelling of the lower abdomen
- A lump in the abdomen
- Pain the a abdomen or pelvis
- Feeling pressure on the bowel or bladder
- Feeling like when you go to the toiler, you can’t empty your bowel or bladder completely
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, particularly bleeding after menopause
Peritoneal cancer is usually associated with ovarian and fallopian tube cancers. They most commonly occur in women who have had their ovaries or fallopian tubes removed, often many years earlier for hereditary breast/ovarian cancer syndrome.
- Bloody or watery discharge that might smell bad
- Discomfort pr pain in the abdomen
- Difficulty or pain when bleeding
- Pain during sex
- Needing between periods, or after menopause
Most patients present with a vulvar lump or ulcer. There is often a long history of vulvar itching, which is usually associated with the chronic rash called lichen sclerosus. Being an external organ, it is easy to visualize the cancer, and anyone with lichen sclerosus should be taught to do a monthly inspection of the vulva with a mirror and report any changes. Most cancers occur on the large lips (labia majora), but they may occur anywhere from the clitoris in the front to the perianal area (perineum) at the back. Anyone with frequent rashes should be taught to do a monthly inspection of the vulva with a mirror.
- Itching, burn or pain on the vulva
- A lump, sore, swelling or wart-like growth
- Thickened or raised patches of skin - could be red, white or brown
- A mole that changes colour or shape
- A lesion or sore on the vulva
- Hard or swiller lymph nodes in the groin
As with cervical cancer, most patients with vaginal cancer present with postcoital bleeding, or with painless vaginal bleeding or a smelly vaginal discharge. As the average of patients is 67 years, most patients present with postmenopausal bleeding. Most cancers occur in the upper one-third of the vagina and should be seen at the time of cervical cancer screening.
- blood stained discharge (not from a period)
- Bleeding after sex
- Pain in the pelvic area
- A lump in the vagina
- Difficulty peeing, blood in the pee or needing to pee frequently
- Pain in the rectum
This disease competes with breast cancer as the commonest cause of death from cancer in women in developing countries, because these countries cannot afford cancer screening. Fortunately, with an organised screening program in Australia since 1991, and Pap smears readily available since the early sixties, most cervical cancers are diagnosed in a precancerous stage called Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN). This precancerous condition produces no symptoms, so is only diagnosed by screening. It can be easily treated, and invasive cancer prevented. The HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine has also been available in Australia since 2007, and this will markedly reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in the future.
The classical symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding after intercourse (postcoital bleeding). Although postcoital bleeding may be caused by a benign ulcer or polyp on the cervix, cervical cancer must always be excluded when this symptom occurs. In women who are not sexually active, intermenstrual or postmenopausal bleeding may also be due to cervical cancer.
Unlike endometrial cancer which bleeds early, cancer of the cervix can often get quite large before it bleeds spontaneously. Therefore, in women who are not having sexual intercourse, the cancer may become infected, and the first symptom may be a smelly vaginal discharge.
- Bleeding between periods or after sex
- Pain during sex
- Longer or heavier periods than usual
- Unusual discharge
- Bleeding after menopause
Tumours of the Placenta
These tumours are called Gestational Trophoblastic Disease, and include benign hydatidiform moles, invasive moles and choriocarcinoma. The placenta, or afterbirth, produces the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is easily measured in the blood or urine.
Hydatidiform moles, which are benign, occur in about one per 1000 pregnancies in Australia. Almost all present with vaginal bleeding, usually in the late first or early second trimester of pregnancy. Other symptoms include a larger than expected size of the uterus, excessive vomiting and early toxaemia (hypertension). Definitive diagnosis is made by ultrasound and the uterus should be evacuated by suction curettage. There is no baby present in patients with a complete mole.
Invasive moles, in which the trophoblastic tumour invades the muscle of the uterus, occur in about 15% of patients following evacuation of a mole. The hCG levels in the blood should be followed after the mole has been evacuated, and an invasive mole is diagnosed when the levels fail to return to normal.
Choriocarcinomas occur after about 4% of hydatidiform moles but can occasionally occur after a normal full-term or ectopic pregnancy. Choriocarcinomas are associated with widespread metastases, usually to the lungs or vagina, but occasionally to the brain, liver or other organs. Hence, symptoms are varied, and include such things as persistent cough or shortness of breath, abnormal vaginal bleeding, jaundice or neurological symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, headaches or slurred speech. When the presentation follows a normal or ectopic pregnancy, diagnosis is usually delayed. Fortunately, when managed in expert centres, even patients with extensive metastatic disease have a good cure rate with combination chemotherapy.
- Vaginal bleeding during the late first or early second trimester of pregnancy,
- Excessive vomiting
- A larger than expected size of the uterus
Spread the love with your sisters, daughters, mothers, aunties and grand mothers in the special purple colour for Gynae Cancer Awareness month.
Love your body temple and support this important research.
Indigo Luna xx
- for even more detailed information, head over to the QLD GOV Health website https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/signs-symptoms-treatment-prevention-screening-test-gynaecological-cancer-women-cervical-vulval-vaginal-uterine-fallopian-tube-ovarian