What is gynaecological cancer and what are the symptoms?

September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month!

Your first line of defense against gynecologic cancers? Get informed. Knowing the facts can help you recognize the sometimes silent symptoms so treatment can begin in the earlier stages.

Approximately 70,500 women are diagnosed with gynecological cancer each year. The good news is that regular gynecologic screenings can find cancer early enough for treatment. Even better is that some cancers can be prevented altogether with simple vaccines and lifestyle changes.

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.


Types of gynecologic cancer

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer starts in the cervix and occurs most often in women over 40. It is the most common gynecologic cancer, and some types can be prevented by HPV vaccine. Regular Pap tests aid in early detection.

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

Uterine cancer

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.


Ovarian cancer

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. Symptoms of ovarian cancer may be vague. It is the fifth most common cancer in women.

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
  • indigestion
  • urinary changes – needing to go more often or more urgently
  • changes in bowel habits, including constipation
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • unexplained fatigue.

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

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

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.

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 groinScreening for vulval cancerThere 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.

Vaginal cancer

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. Cancer of the vagina is rare and has high survival rates. HPV can increase your risk of vaginal cancer.

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.


What should I ask my doctor?

Remember to discuss your risk factors with your doctor at every exam. If you show increased risk due to family history, DES exposure, HPV infection or other factors, you may need to be seen more often than the average annual screening.

  • What is my risk?
  • When should I have my next Pap test?
  • What do my Pap test results mean?
  • Is the HPV test right for me?
  • When can I stop getting a Pap test?
  • Are there any other gynecologic cancer tests that I need, based on my personal health and family cancer history? If so, what are they? Why do I need them? How do they work?

How can I prevent gynecologic cancer or find it early?

While there is no known way to prevent all types of gynecologic cancer, there are things you can do that may help lower your change of getting them or help to find them early. It is important to find gynecologic cancers early, when treatment can be most effective.

  • Pay attention to your body and know what’s normal for you
  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight
  • Avoid smoking
  • Practice safe sex
  • Know your family history and share it with your doctor
  • Get the Human Papiloma Virus (HPV) vaccine and test
  • Get regular Pap tests