What is gynaecological cancer and what are the symptoms?
Tuesday 10 December 2019
Gynaecological cancer is a term used for all the types of cancer that can occur in or on a woman’s reproductive organs and genitals. This includes cancers of the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. About 9.7% of all cancers diagnosed in Australian women are gynaecological cancers.
While there are screening tests for some gynaecological cancers, for others there is no proven screening method. This means that it’s important for women to be aware of the possible signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancers and get to know their bodies well, so they can tell if anything changes. Below, we’ve listed the different types of gynaecological cancers, their symptoms, possible methods of prevention and applicable screening programs.
I think I have symptoms of a gynaecological cancer – what should I do?
You know your body best. If you’ve noticed a change in your body (and it’s ongoing – there’s a difference between being bloated after one big meal and being consistently bloated in a way that is unusual for you) then head to the doctor. The same thing goes if a partner notices a change in your body – sometimes they will see or feel things that you won’t have noticed, so if they tell you about a change, take that information straight to your doctor.
Most of the time your symptoms will have a different, less serious cause, and once you know what’s going on you can get appropriate treatment and stop worrying that it’s the big C. It’s always best to get cancer diagnosed and to start a treatment plan as early as possible, so if you do have cancer, you’ll be glad you caught it as soon as possible.
It’s always okay to get a second opinion if you’re still concerned about symptoms that haven’t gone away after you’ve seen a doctor. Doctors are used to this, in fact, sometimes they’ll even recommend it. No one knows your body like you do, so if something has changed and it’s worrying you, book an appointment.
What happens if I have a family history of cancer?
Having a family history of cancers like ovarian cancer does not mean you will definitely get the same or a similar type of cancer yourself. But family history can affect your risk level of certain types of cancer, so it’s important to let your doctor know who had cancer, what type of cancer they had, and how old they were.
Your doctor will be able to let you know if you should have any tests to monitor your health and will talk to you about ways you can lower your risk of cancer developing.
What are the different gynaecological cancers?
Cervical cancer is a cancer that forms in the cervix. The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the common, sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV. Because of this, the National Cervical Screening Program tests women for HPV infection every five years.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
- bleeding between periods or after having sex
- pain during sex
- longer or heavier periods than usual
- unusual discharge from the vagina
- vaginal bleeding after menopause
Symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include:
- excessive tiredness
- leg pain or swelling of the legs
- lower back pain
Can cervical cancer be prevented?
The good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Because almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection, preventing HPV can also prevent cervical cancer. You can get vaccinated against HPV, reducing your risk of both infection and cancer.
The HPV vaccine is most effective when given in early adolescence, well before a person becomes exposed to HPV. HPV vaccinations are provided to boys and girls in year 7 through the School Immunisation Program or their doctor. If you’re already sexually active and haven’t had the vaccine, it’s still worth talking to your doctor about whether you should be immunised. People 19 years old or under can get the HPV vaccine for free from their doctor.
To be fully vaccinated against HPV you require two doses of the vaccine, given at least six months apart. So, whether you’ve had the vaccine at school or through your doctor, it’s really important you remember to get the second dose.
You can read more about HPV and the HPV vaccine on the Australian Government Immunisation website.
Cervical cancer can also be prevented by getting regular Cervical Screening Tests to detect HPV infection before it can cause cancer. In Australia, these are offered for free as part of the National Cervical Screening Program.
Smoking also raises your risk of cervical cancer, so if you’re a smoker (even a social smoker) it’s time to quit! You can find resources to help you quit smoking at QUIT HQ.
What is the National Cervical Screening Program?
The National Cervical Screening Program, or NCSP for short, is a program set up to routinely test Australian women for HPV infection which might lead to cervical cancer. Because of this program, Australia is on the way to being the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer.
The NCSP provides women who are 25 years or older a free Cervical Screening Test every five years. In 2017, the Cervical Screening Test replaced the two-yearly Pap Smear Test. You can find more information about what the Cervical Screening Test is, why you should get one, and why it replaced the Pap Smear in these articles:
Everything that happens during your Cervical Screening Test appointment
Cervical cancer screening – what is changing and how will it affect you?
Uterine cancer, or cancer of the uterus or womb, is cancer that occurs in the uterus. Your uterus is the organ located inside your pelvis – it’s where a baby would grow if you were pregnant. There are two main types of uterine cancer: endometrial cancer, which occurs in the lining of the uterus, and uterine sarcomas.
Symptoms of uterine cancer
Symptoms of uterine cancer can include:
- bloody or watery discharge, which might have a bad smell
- bleeding between periods or after menopause
- discomfort or pain in the abdomen
- difficulty urinating or pain when using the toilet
- pain during sex
Screening for uterine cancer
There is no proven screening test for uterine cancer, so it’s important that you let your doctor know if you notice any changes, particularly a change in discharge.
How can I prevent uterine cancer?
A number of lifestyle factors can change your level of risk of having uterine cancer, including maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular physical activity. You can read more about the risk factors of developing uterine cancers at Cancer Australia.
Ovarian cancer is cancer that occurs in one or both ovaries. Your ovaries are the two small organs that sit either side of your uterus. They release ovum (eggs) and hormones. You can learn more about your ovaries in our podcast episode: My Amazing Body – The Ovaries.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer
Ovarian cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms, or if it does, they might seem vague or similar to other conditions. If you experience the below symptoms and they are unusual for your body or don’t go away, let your doctor know.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- abdominal bloating
- increased abdominal size
- pain in the abdomen or pelvis
- loss of appetite (not feeling like you want to eat)
- feeling full quickly after eating
- urinary changes – needing to go more often or more urgently
- changes in bowel habits, including constipation
- unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- unexplained fatigue.
How can I prevent ovarian cancer?
Some risk factors of ovarian cancer are unavoidable. Having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer or colon cancer, or a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, is not something you can change. You should talk to your doctor about monitoring your health and ways to reduce your risk.
Smoking and obesity are both linked to a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. Head to QUIT HQ for support to quit smoking. Healthier. Happier. provides tools and information to help you maintain a healthy weight.
Untreated sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia can increase the risk of ovarian cancer, so it’s important that you have a sexual health check to check for any infections regularly, or with each new sexual partner.
Having children, using the oral contraceptive pill and having tubal litigation (tubes tied) all reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
Screening for ovarian cancer
There is no screening test for ovarian cancer, so it’s important to let your doctor know if you notice any changes.
Fallopian tube cancer
Fallopian tube cancer occurs in one or both of the fallopian tubes. These are the tube-shaped structures that run between your uterus and ovaries.
Symptoms of fallopian tube cancer
Often, fallopian tube cancer won’t cause any symptoms. When it does cause symptoms, these can include:
- swelling of the lower abdomen without increased weight gain elsewhere on the body, which doesn’t go away with a change in diet or physical activity
- a lump in the abdomen
- pain in the bottom of the abdomen or pelvis that doesn’t go away
- feeling pressure on the bowel or bladder
- feeling like when you go to the toilet, you can’t empty your bowel or bladder completely
- abnormal bleeding or discharge from the vagina, particularly bleeding after menopause
How can I prevent fallopian tube cancer?
Ongoing infection or inflammation of the fallopian tubes is associated with a higher risk of fallopian tube cancer. This might be caused by untreated sexually transmitted infections, so it’s important that you have a sexual health check to check for any infections regularly, or with each new sexual partner.
Screening for fallopian tube cancer
There is no proven screening test for fallopian tube cancer, so it’s important that you let your doctor know if you notice any changes.
Vulval cancer (also known as vulvar cancer or cancer of the vulva) is cancer that occurs on the genitals on the outside of a woman’s body. This includes the labia minora and labia majora (you might know these as your inner or outer lips), the clitoris, the pubic mound and the perineum, which is the skin between your vagina and anus. Vulval cancer is more common in women who have gone through menopause, but it can affect women at any age.
What are the symptoms of vulval cancer?
Symptoms of vulval cancer can include:
- itching, burning or pain at a point in the vulva
- a lump, sore, swelling or wart-like growth
- thickened or raised patches of skin on the vulva, which could be red, white or brown
- a mole that changes colour or shape
- a lesion or sore on the vulva that releases blood, pus or discharge
- hard or swollen lymph nodes in the groin
What should I do if I’ve noticed a change in my vulva?
If you’ve noticed any of the above symptoms or another change to your external genitals, you need to show a doctor. It’s really tricky to properly self-examine your vulva – it can be hard to get a good look down there! Tell your GP or gynaecologist about any changes you’ve noticed and they can take a look and do any tests that are necessary.
Screening for vulval cancer
There is no proven screening test for vulval cancer, so it’s important that you get to know the normal look and feel of this part of your body and let your doctor know if you notice any changes.
How can I prevent vulval cancer?
HPV can sometimes cause vulval cancer, so as with cervical cancer, it’s recommended you get immunised against HPV.
Smoking also raises the risk of vulval cancer, so if you’re a smoker (even a social smoker) it’s time to quit! You can find resources to help you quit smoking at QUIT HQ.
Vaginal cancer is cancer that forms in the tissue of the vagina. Your vagina is the internal passage that starts at the opening in your vulva and runs through to your cervix. Vaginal cancer is one of the rarest forms of gynaecological cancer; only about 70 women are diagnosed with vaginal cancer in Australia each year. It tends to mostly affect older women, with 70 being the average age of diagnosis, but it can affect women of any age.
Symptoms of vaginal cancer
Vaginal cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms, especially in the early stages. When they do occur, symptoms of vaginal cancer can include:
- vaginal discharge that is blood-stained or has blood in it, that isn’t from a period
- bleeding after having sex
- pain in the pelvic area
- a lump in the vagina
- difficulty urinating, blood in urine or needing to use the toilet frequently
- pain in the rectum
Screening for vaginal cancer
There is no proven screening test for vaginal cancer, so it’s important that you get to know the normal look and feel of this part of your body and let your doctor know if you notice any changes.
How can I prevent vaginal cancer?
HPV can sometimes cause vaginal cancer, so as with cervical cancer, it’s recommended you get immunised against HPV.
Smoking also raises the risk of vaginal cancer – in fact, smoking doubles your risk of developing this disease. If you’re a smoker (even a social smoker) it’s time to quit! You can find resources to help you quit smoking at QUIT HQ.
More information about gynaecological cancers can be found at the links below:
Cancer Australia: Gynaecological cancers
Cancer Council: Gynaecological cancers
The subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer – what a survivor wants women to know