When I was a kid, we called my vagina a "wee-wee". It wasn’t a particularly inventive name; I know people who used "VJ" or "foof" or "front bottom" or "kitty", and while I was a little disappointed in my family’s lack of creativity with the whole thing, I never really thought that much more about it. But according to Athena Lamnisos, the CEO of The Eve Appeal, these sort of euphemisms might be part of the reason that over 42 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they wouldn’t tell anyone if they had abnormal vaginal bleeding, one of the key symptoms of all gynaecological cancers.
“That euphemistic side isn’t helpful at all. We need to call things what they are,” Lamnisos explains. “We don’t have open conversations about periods or menopause. The whole area is shrouded in mystery.”
Our reluctance to talk openly about our vaginas means that urban myths, swapped between giggling friends over wine and passed down from well-intentioned mothers to their teenage daughters about periods and how our bodies should behave, are taken as fact. Which, at best, can make you look a little dumb (seriously, I can’t be the only person who thought they’d poo themselves the first time they had a period) and, at worst, can have a negative impact on your health.
In the UK alone, more than 21,000 women are diagnosed with some form of gynaecological cancer each year. And yet a staggering amount of women don’t know what the symptoms of gynae cancers are or they mistake them for something else entirely. As Lamnisos explained, “The lack of awareness that it could be a problem is the problem.”
So, here are some of the most common myths about gynaecological cancer busted:
The two types of gynaecological cancer are ovarian and cervical
Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. There are actually five types of gynae cancer – ovarian, cervical, vaginal, vulval and womb cancer.
Out of the five cancers, womb cancer is the most prevalent and the fourth most-common cancer in women in the UK. Unfortunately, diagnosis rates rise each year due to changes in our lifestyles, with over 9,300 women diagnosed every year in the UK. Experts do not know what has causes it, but have pointed to age, family history and being overweight as some of the factors that could increase your risk of developping it:. On the other hand, contraceptive pills can decrease the risk of womb cancer.
Gynae cancers only affect older women
Not entirely true. Whereas almost 50 per cent of women diagnosed with womb, ovarian, vaginal and vulval cancer are over 65, young women can also develop gynae cancers, too. In fact, the peak rate of cervical cancer cases is in women aged 25-29 and it’s the second-most common form of cancer for women under 35.
A cervical screening test (smear test) will tell me if I have cancer
Contrary to popular belief, a cervical screening isn’t a test for cancer – it’s a test to check if you have any abnormal cells on your cervix. Most women’s results come back completely normal, but for about one in 20 women the test shows abnormal cells. In most cases, these cells will go back to normal on their own, but in some instances they need to be removed so that they can’t become cancerous.
While having a smear test is important to make sure that you don’t have any abnormal cells on your cervix that may develop into cervical cancer, it doesn’t tell you anything about your chances of developing the other four gynae cancers.
People who get cervical cancer are “promiscuous”
While the majority of cervical cancers start as HPV (human papilloma virus), you could literally have sex with one person and contract HPV. Plus, you don’t actually have to have penetrative sex to contract HPV – it can actually be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. So even if you’re a virgin or have never had unprotected sex, it’s important to have a cervical screening if you’re over 25.
The HPV vaccine can protect from cancer, so you don’t need a smear test
Wrong. The HPV vaccine protects against four types of HPV, between them responsible for more than 70 per cent of cervical cancers in the UK. While it significantly decreases your chances of developing cervical cancer, it isn’t 100 per cent effective, which means you still need a screening, just in case.
Gynae cancers don’t have symptoms
Loads of women experience early warning signs, but they’re often mistaken for something else. Things you should be on the lookout for include: irregular bleeding (between periods or after sex) or unusual bleeding (heavier than usual); constant abdominal pressure and bloating; blood-stained or abnormal-looking discharge; changes in bowel or urinary habits that last for over a month; and changes to the appearance of the vulva.
In all likelihood, these symptoms can be explained by something completely non-cancerous, but if you experience any of these symptoms, it’s best to head to your GP just to be safe.
Study after study reveals that vast swathes of women don’t feel comfortable going to their GP about a gynaecological-related question and more than a quarter of a million women in England aged between 25 and 29 didn’t have a smear test last year because they felt too embarrassed.
If you’re nervous about talking to a doctor about your gynaecological health, remember that you can always request a female GP. If you need more reassurance or guidance on how to talk to healthcare professionals, The Eve Appeal has set up Ask Eve, a service that offers free and confidential information online.