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Macmillan Cancer Support clarifies common myths around gynaecological cancers

Monday, 27 September 2021

People with gynaecological cancers might be missing out on an early diagnosis because they are unsure about the signs and symptoms, Macmillan Cancer Support is warning.

Gynaecological cancers are more likely to be curable if diagnosed early. However, common myths around smear tests and early detection are stopping people from going to the doctor, putting lives at risk. As part of Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month this September, Macmillan wants to put the facts straight on gynaecological cancers and correcting some of the most common myths. 

Myth No. 1: There are no early symptoms of gynaecological cancer

Fact: Many ovarian, womb (uterine) or vaginal cancers do have early warning signs. Common symptoms are:

  • pelvic pain or pressure
  • itching or burning of the vulva
  • changes in vulval colour or skin (rash, sores, warts, or ulcers)
  • changes in bathroom habits (increased peeing, constipation, or diarrhoea)
  • bloating
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • pain in the back or stomach

Unlike other medical conditions with these symptoms, gynaecological cancers generally get worse over time. Anyone who has been treated for other health conditions and whose symptoms have not improved should arrange an appointment with their GP. Anyone who has gone through the menopause and has any vaginal bleeding (even spotting) should see their GP.

Myth No. 2: Smear tests can detect all gynaecological cancers

Fact: A smear test is a screening test for cervical cancer, not other cancers. This test can detect high risk HPV virus, which is the most common cause of cervical cancer,  so it is vital that people attend regular smear tests at their GP surgery or the Island’s Staywell Clinic based at Noble’s Hospital .

If high risk HPV virus is present on the smear then it is checked for abnormal cells, (pre-cancerous) as these changes could become cervical cancer if not treated.

Smear tests cannot detect ovarian or womb cancers. When one of these other types of cancer is suspected, a pelvic exam would be conducted to check for masses or growths. Other diagnostic tests may also be done.

Myth No. 3: Ovarian cancer is impossible to detect early.

Fact: Ovarian cancer can be difficult to detect early because of its vague symptoms and location, but research continues to improve detection and treatment. Some known factors that can increase risk include family history, personal history, genetic mutations, age and obesity. When ovarian cancer is diagnosed and treated early, the five-year survival rate is nearly 93%. Ovarian cancer survival in the UK has almost doubled in the last 40 years.

Myth No. 4: Cervical cancer cannot be prevented.

Fact: The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). Some types of HPV can affect the cervix and cause abnormal cell changes that may develop into cervical cancer. HPV is very common, and most people are infected with it at some point. A vaccine can be used to help prevent HPV infection. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of contracting HPV infection.

Myth No. 5: Taking the contraceptive pill can increase the risk of getting gynaecological cancers.

Fact: While taking the contraceptive pill for over five years can increase the risk of cervical cancer, some hormone-based contraceptives have been shown to reduce the risk of uterine, ovarian and endometrial cancer with long-term use. When in doubt, individuals should discuss their own personal gynaecological cancer risk factors with their GP

Cat Tracy, Senior Sister within Manx Care’s Women’s Health Team, works closely with the team at Macmillan Cancer Support and commented:

'I’d really urge anyone who’s worried about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancers to speak to their GP  – and please don’t be embarrassed about it! If people are concerned about anything to do with their health, it’s important to get checked out as soon as possible. Early diagnosis can be key to successful treatment. There is plenty of support here on the Island for people to seek advice and reassurance – we’re here to help and we want to see you.'

People with any questions about gynaecological cancers can call Macmillan’s Information and Support service at Noble’s Hospital on +44 1624 650735. This is open Monday to Sunday from 8am to 8pm. More information about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancers can also be found on Macmillan’s website –

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