September is National Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month – a time dedicated to raising awareness of the signs and symptoms of female reproductive system disease, encouraging women to speak up by removing associations of shame and embarrassment.
Did you know that there are five gynaecological cancers? Cervical, ovarian, vulval, vaginal, and womb? This is why this is such an important month for women across the UK.
Every year, over 21,000 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer, translating to roughly 58 people every day. Approximately 99.8 per cent of cases are preventable, meaning that recognising symptoms and going for screenings when necessary can help pick up if you might have developed the disease, giving you access to treatment.
The focus on HPV Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of three gynaecological cancers including the majority of cervical cancer cases and vaginal and vulval cancer, although rare. HPV is a group of viruses that are transmitted through sexual activity, and often don’t display any symptoms.
Around 35% of women have no idea what HPV is, and nearly 60% said they thought it meant they had cancer. HPV is very common – most people (80%) will get some type of HPV in their life. There are more than 100 types, 30 to 40 of which are sexually transmitted. Of these, at least 15 are high-risk HPV strains that can lead to cervical cancer.
The Independent advises that it is unhelpful to call HPV a sexually transmitted disease—but why?
Is HPV a sexually transmitted infection?
Dialogue on sexual health awareness is still unfortunately a taboo in our society, with most people actively avoiding discussing this topic, particularly with young people.
Because of this, the BBC reports that high levels of shame and ignorance are associated with HPV, which, when neglected, can result in higher numbers of gynaecological cancers.
Back in 2019, the government rolled out HPV testing as part of routine screenings for cervical cancer, an important step considering nearly half of women believe their partner must have cheated if they had HPV. Yet the virus can remain dormant for years.
There are also negative connotations of promiscuity with HPV, which is an inaccurate and damaging label. It’s worth noting that unlike many sexually transmitted infections, it is impossible to fully prevent HPV and it can be passed on during unprotected sex.
Referring to HPV as an STI only fuels the fire and continues spreading misconceptions about the virus which could lead to internalised negative feelings and accusations. According to Jo’s Trust, around half of women surveyed said that they would consider ending a relationship with someone who has HPV, and a further quarter wouldn’t kiss someone.
In England, all children aged 12 to 13 are routinely offered the HPV vaccination at school. Fortunately, the vaccine is effective at preventing contracting the high-risk strains of HPV that cause cancer, including most cervical cancers. If you or your child missed the vaccination, you can get it for free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday.
What are the symptoms of gynaecological cancer?
As HPV typically carries no symptoms, follow this guide for symptoms of the five different types of gynaecological cancer provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Knowing your body
While HPV and sexually transmitted infections share some similarities, most of us will have HPV regardless of sexual behaviour. Therefore, the level of stigma associated with the virus needs to change. Women need to be empowered to understand HPV properly and to feel comfortable getting their bodies checked. Health is a precious thing, let’s not take it for granted and keep on top of our tests and examinations.
Although it might be incredibly nerve racking to think about having your first smear test, when you hit the age of 25, we implore that you attend. While smear tests aren’t the most fun thing to do on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s a few minutes of discomfort for reassurance that you’re in good health. Testing for HPV in your cervical screening should be thought of as welcome news, and only leads to preventing more cancer and saving lives.
The more you’re familiar with your body, the more you’ll know when something doesn’t seem quite right. Armed with this information, you can get tested, and if necessary, receive treatment. There’s no shame in getting tested. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’d like to book an appointment with your GP, book an online doctor appointment for discretion.
The best weapon to combat stigma is learning the facts.
Main pic: @dainisgraveris