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Know what’s what and help your health


the eve appeal, health iliteracy, women's cancers, talk about itDiscussing the symptoms of gynaecological cancers more openly could help save lives.

A lack of knowledge around the causes and symptoms of gynaecological cancers, leading to inaccurate assumptions about the links between sex and cancer, could be costing women in the UK their lives.

This is one of the conclusions that has to be reached after the women’s cancer research charity The Eve Appeal released its annual survey recently.

It revealed that one in five women surveyed believed that gynaecological cancers are associated with sexual promiscuity, and almost 40 per cent felt that there was a greater stigma around gynaecological cancers than other forms of the disease.

This stigma is preventing women from seeking potentially life-saving medical advice; a quarter of respondents said that they are put off talking to their GP about gynaecological health problems because they don’t want to discuss their sexual history.

While there is a causal link between some forms of gynaecological cancers and the sexually transmitted High Risk Human Papilloma Virus (HRHPV), the virus is so common that it can be considered a normal consequence of sexual activity since 80 per cent of people will contract some form of the HPV virus in their lifetime – even in those who have had one sexual partner.

There is currently no known association between HRHPV or any other sexually transmitted diseases and the two most common gynaecological cancers – ovarian or womb cancer.

These taboos are just one of the barriers to early diagnosis of gynaecological cancers identified by the survey.

The data also highlighted a reluctance to seek medical help for many of the most common symptoms of these diseases, particularly amongst women aged between 46 and 55.

Respondents within this generational ‘danger zone’ were most likely to ignore gynaecological health symptoms in the hope that they would go away (38 per cent) or think that they were not urgent enough to see a GP about (21 per cent).

One in five women aged 46-55 even said they hadn’t sought medical advice for symptoms such as changes to periods, persistent bloating or pelvic discomfort because they believed they were normal for someone of their age.

But in fact postmenopausal bleeding is a key symptom of womb cancer, which women of this age group are at higher risk of developing with almost three quarters (73 per cent) of cases in the UK diagnosed being in women aged between 40 and 74.

Age is also a significant factor in the incidence rate of other gynaecological cancers. Three quarters of ovarian cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in women over 55, and vaginal and vulval cancers occur most commonly in women over 60.

With so many factors contributing to the attitudes and perceptions around gynaecological health there is a clear need for further debate around the topic.

And the survey’s findings support this too; 85 per cent of respondents agreed that discussing the symptoms of gynaecological cancer more openly could help save lives.

A further 34 per cent stated that they would feel more comfortable talking about gynaecological health problems if the sexual stigma surrounding these issues were reduced.

Every day in the UK 55 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer, making Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month (GCAM) 2015 the perfect time to start what could be a life-saving conversation.

The Eve Appeal wants to encourage women to host a fun night in to raise money for the essential research that the charity funds – as well as getting friends and family together to ‘open up’ about gynaecological issues and share their knowledge and experiences of gynaecological cancers.

And learn what the bits are called.

For as well as embarrassment, stigma and fear of and dismissive doctors contributing to a delay in cancer diagnosis, widespread ‘health illiteracy’ also compromises not just cancer treatment, but every aspect of healthcare.

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