Speaking to a group of city people recently, I started my pitch about The Eve Appeal by asking a question: “How many of you are aware of prostate cancer and its signs or symptoms?” – about 95% of the room put their hands up. I then asked the same question about womb cancer – only 5% of the room raised their hands. There were 100 people in the room – and only one of them was male. What better way to show that gynae cancers deserve more air time, that the symptoms are too little known and that we still need to smash shame, taboos and embarrassment about all things gynae.
Now, the room was full of people who possessed wombs, not prostates, so why did they know so much about prostate cancer and yet so little of the most prevalent gynae cancer. I learnt a lesson that morning: knowledge about gynae cancers needs to reach everyone; not just women, not just girls, but everyone who has a mum, daughter, sister, friend or partner in their life.
I hope that those in the room that day took the information home with them and shared what they had learnt. We need to get rid of the taboos around all things gynae with not just women, but everyone. Until we can have normal conversations about periods, menopause and what we call the parts of a women’s body, we won’t make the progress that we need to.
More than 21,000 women in the UK are diagnosed each year with a gynaecological cancer (womb, ovarian, cervical, vaginal and vulval). That’s 58 mums, daughters, sisters, friends or partners a day too many. New research, conducted in 2017 amongst 2,000 people, demonstrates that awareness levels among women, and men, are startling low. Indeed, half the men surveyed admitted that they’d find it uncomfortable to discuss a gynae health issue with their partner, with a fifth of the men aged 18-44 confessing it was all just ‘too embarrassing’.
September is Gynae Cancer Awareness Month. We lead this campaign and the national conversation to get everyone talking about the five gynaecological cancers and their signs and symptoms. This means a lot of straight-talking. It means calling a vagina a vagina – and knowing what the difference is between a vulva (no, it’s not a car) and a vagina.
Far too frequently, we hear from women who say that the first time they hear of one of the gynae cancers is when they’re being told they have it. That’s something we must change. Is there a woman alive who hasn’t heard of breast cancer and has some kind of awareness of one of the symptoms?
Only one in seven women are able to name a single gynae cancer. Some of these diseases have stealthy cat-burglar symptoms and you need to be alert and body aware to spot them before they have kittens and are diagnosed at a late stage. Others are loud town-criers and announce themselves with bloody aplomb, and yet women drown out the symptoms with an ‘oh it’s probably just one of those things…
This September, we are encouraging every woman to get to know their body. This means knowing what your reproductive organs are called and what the signs and symptoms of gynae cancers are, so that you can to look out them and seek medical advice if needed.
The key symptoms to look out for across the gynae cancers include irregular or unexpected bleeding (in-between periods, after menopause or after sex), vaginal discharge (yep, just said the word discharge) that smells or may be blood stained, as well as changes to the skin of the vulva or feelings of abdominal bloating that don’t go away.
But we’re not just getting women involved in our campaigning. We’re also launching I Am Adam, a campaign to give a voice to all the men affected by these too-little talked about diseases. ‘Eve’ is the ubiquitous word for ‘woman’, and for every ‘Eve’ we know there are many ‘Adams’ – men who love and care for them and are in the best position to tell them to seek advice and not to be embarrassed, but to talk openly about their concerns.
Whilst on the subject of seeking advice, here is a gentle reminder for all those with a gynae niggle that something may not be quite right, or those who have concerns about a loved one; there’s a unique service to #TeamEve that’s free, confidential and staffed by a totally unembarrassable gynae nurse – Tracie. Get in touch – no question is too trivial and there are definitely no taboos.
So remember, gynae health isn’t just for girls. We all have a role to play. We all have to look after each other, smash the taboos and save lives. Our own, our friends, our loved ones. Knowledge is power.