In this article, we’re going to discuss each of the five gynaecological cancers and their symptoms. If you’re experiencing anything that’s concerning you, it’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Types of gynaecological cancer and their symptoms
There are five different types of gynaecological cancer – womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal. There are some common symptoms between each of these five different cancers, such as irregular or unusual vaginal bleeding, but on the whole, each one has different symptoms and some may have no significant symptoms at all.
The medical name for the womb is the uterus, and for this reason, womb cancer is often also referred to as uterine cancer. The majority of womb cancers begin in the lining of the womb, called the endometrium, which means that it’s also often called endometrial cancer.
Endometrial cancer is the most common gynaecological cancer in the UK and is most common in women who are postmenopausal. There are other, rarer types of womb cancer that are related to pregnancy and the foetus.
The main symptom of womb cancer is unusual vaginal bleeding, most commonly in postmenopausal women. If you haven’t had a period in over a year and you suddenly start bleeding, make an appointment to see your GP. Other unusual vaginal bleeding can include:
- Unusually heavy periods
- Bleeding or spotting between periods
- Blood stained discharge
- Bleeding after sex
There is currently no screening programme for womb cancer as the main symptom – unusual bleeding – tends to cause women to seek medical advice quite quickly. This means that diagnosis is often made at an early stage and there is therefore a very high cure rate.
Around 95% of women who experience unusual bleeding, don’t have womb cancer and their symptoms are attributed to something else. You can find out more information in our article Common questions about womb cancer.
Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that affects the ovaries and/or the fallopian tubes. In the past, it’s been described as a “silent killer” due to the fact that it so often has no significant symptoms that might suggest early stage cancer.
Ovarian cancer symptoms including abdominal bloating, bladder irritation, difficulty going to the toilet and feelings of an increase in pressure in the lower abdomen, can mean that the disease has already reached a more advanced stage.
Some ovarian cancers are linked to certain hormones and may cause some women to experience irregular bleeding or a complete lack of periods, unrelated to the menopause.
There are two main types of ovarian cancer – epithelial, which is the most common, or non epithelial which is a hormone producing cancer. Non epithelial ovarian cancer isn’t a true cancer, instead it causes abnormal cells. It mainly affects young women and can affect their fertility so it’s important to spot and to treat. If caught early enough, it can be treated, taking into account fertility preservation techniques or by waiting until a woman has completed their family before having treatment.
The main symptoms of ovarian cancer can often be attributed to something else or explained away. But if you’re experiencing any of the following, make an appointment to see your GP:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling that doesn’t go away
- Quickly feeling uncomfortably full after eating
- Feeling sick after eating
- Ongoing pain in the lower abdomen
- Needing to urinate more often or with more urgency
- A change in bowel habit
Cervical cancer affects the cells of the cervix, the organ that sits between the neck of the womb and the top of the vagina. It’s most common in women in their early to mid 30s and is rare under the age of 25.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a common virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV, that’s passed on through sexual contact (although it isn’t considered a sexually transmitted infection, or STI).
In the UK, the cervical screening programme is hugely successful at screening and detecting changes in the cervix caused by precancerous cells. Precancerous, or premalignant, cells could become abnormal and if left untreated, could develop into cancer.
The earlier these cells are detected, the better the outcome. Therefore, regularly attending cervical screening appointments (commonly known as a smear test appointment and that also now include a test for the HPV virus) is essential as they help to detect potential cervical cancer early.
The symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Irregular or abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Much heavier or more painful periods than usual
- Continuous bleeding with no gap between periods
- Bleeding after sex
- Foul or offensive smelling discharge
- Feeling a lump or a mass in the cervix
Vulval cancer is a relatively rare type of gynaecological cancer that affects the vulva.
The vulva is a collective term that describes the external female genitalia including the inner and outer vaginal lips, the clitoris and the Bartholin’s glands (a pair of glands just inside the vagina that secrete vaginal fluids).
The vast majority of vulval cancers affect women over 60 years old, however, it isn’t uncommon in younger women.
Common symptoms of vulval cancer include:
- Itching in the skin of the vulva
- Painful or sore skin
- Changes in the appearance of the skin, such as the skin becoming lighter or darker, thickened or red
- An open, unexplained sore
- A lump or swelling in the vulval area
- Changes in the appearance of an existing mole in the area
Vaginal cancer is very rare and is the least common gynaecological cancer. It’s most common in women over 75 years old, but still only accounts for around 1-2% of all gynaecological cancers.
Like cervical cancer, most cases are linked to the HPV virus. The majority of vaginal cancers occur at the top of the vagina, close to the cervix, with a small number of them occurring in the vaginal canal.
Vaginal cancer in its early stages doesn’t always cause symptoms, and often, when it’s diagnosed, it’s already at an advanced stage.
However, in some cases it may cause the following symptoms:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Unusual vaginal discharge that may smell offensive or be blood stained
- Pain when passing urine
- Pain when having sex
- Vaginal itching
Getting a diagnosis of gynaecological cancer
If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, or any other symptoms that are concerning you, make an appointment to speak to your GP. Our Health Hub article, What happens if you think you have gynaecological cancer?, explains more about what might happen next if your GP refers you for more investigations.
Many of these symptoms can be attributed to something else, but if you do have a type of gynaecological cancer, the earlier it’s detected, the better your chances of successful treatment. Cancer diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, survival and follow up is getting better all the time.
Watch our informative Gynaecological Cancer Explained webinar to learn how our multidisciplinary team can help provide you with an individualised care plan to support your diagnosis and recovery.
- If you’re concerned about gynaecological symptoms of cancer, speak to your GP who may refer you to a specialist. (Don’t have a GP?)
- The King Edward VII Hospital’s Gynaecology department is equipped with the latest technology, services and staff to diagnose, treat and manage all types of gynaecological cancers.