Women of all ages need to know the signs of gynaecological cancer.
I was only 22 when I discovered there was a lump in my womb.
The doctors put it down to a fibroid, a very common, benign, and – more often than not – harmless lump of tissue. My symptoms (incredibly heavy, painful periods) though, just kept getting worse and worse. It was only after having surgery for fibroid removal – a year and a half after my initial diagnosis – that I found out I had womb cancer.
Time and time again young women with gynaecological issues struggle to get taken seriously by doctors, and take far too long to get a diagnosis.
21,000 women are diagnosed with a type of gynae cancer per year in the UK, and unfortunately 21 of these women die every day. Early diagnosis is critical in improving outcomes for patients, which is why increased awareness of the symptoms of these conditions is so very important.
Gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal, urges anyone with abnormal bleeding, unusual discharge, changes to the skin of the vulva or any chronic and excessive bloating to see their GP.
Although womb cancer is more commonly diagnosed in women over 40, women of all ages are affected. The most common symptom is abnormal bleeding.
In 2014 I had a scan to check for polycystic ovaries as I still suffered from acne and heavy periods. This is when my first ‘fibroid’ was found, I was told it was harmless and not to worry, and to come back if it became any worse.
I vividly remember asking the doctor how I would know if it got worse and he simply replied: ‘you’ll know’. I was infuriated by the reply, but reassured that it wasn’t something to really worry about.
Bleeding during sex
I first went back to the GP with bleeding during sex. I was examined and found to have an eroded cervix, which can happen to women with high levels of oestrogen over a prolonged length of time. It was assumed this was to do with being on the Pill, but on reflection was probably something far more sinister.
After this, my already heavy periods begun getting even heavier, but at this point it was still easy to dismiss them as within normal range. But then I had an incident serious enough to make me step back and think something might be wrong.
At the end of a plane journey I stood up and (perhaps from the air pressure), had a heavy and immediate bleed. My trousers were soaked to my knees and I was shrouded with embarrassment. I stood in the passport queue for 40 minutes with my coat tied around my waist, before I was able to retreat to a toilet, throw my trousers in the bin and cry.
I hadn’t been sexually active for several months but the bleed was so heavy I thought the only possible explanation was that I had been unknowingly pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. It didn’t occur to me to think of cancer. I was obviously too young for cancer.
I made a doctor’s appointment and told them what happened at the airport. He assured me it was probably a one-off and put it down to stress. But I hadn’t been stressed – I told him that. Now I was stressed! No effort was made to look into it further.
But my periods were getting unmanageably heavy and I was having to set alarms during the night to change my sanitary wear. I was unable to exercise during my weeklong period and it was beginning to rule my life.
In January 2016 I started to feel dizzy, light headed and tired. My words started to jumble, and I was unable to keep my eyes open by 2pm. I went to my GP and found I was severely anaemic. My doctor finally ordered scans. By this point I now had two ‘fibroids’. I was finally getting taken reasonably seriously and surgery was ordered.
But it took 8 months to finally get my original ‘fibroid’ removed. In the meantime my symptoms got even worse. At one point I was even taken to A&E after passing out in the street.
When the surgery finally happened, the surgeons discovered what was actually wrong. The fibroids weren’t fibroids at all – they were tumours. The second of which was deep in the uterine wall and wasn’t removable by surgery.
For several months I was put on a hormone treatment, Zoladex, but the tumour continued to grow.
So at 24 years old I had a total hysterectomy. I will never be able to bear children, and although there is a good chance I am cured, my future will never be what I wanted for myself. The loss of your fertility is akin to grief, and I’m sure it’s a heartache that I will only truly feel the full power of as I get older and everyone around me procreates.
Charities like GRACE are tirelessly undertaking research into gynae cancers and raising awareness in women of all ages to make sure future patients have a better experience than I did.
Brushing off worrying symptoms just because someone is young prevents timely investigations and can mean women get diagnosed with cancer in later stages, severely affecting their chances of survival and fertility preservation.
This Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, lets ensure all young women are aware of the symptoms of gynae cancers and make sure everyone has the best chance against these horrible diseases.