Gynaecological cancers and the signs to look out for

We take a look at the signs and symptoms of the most common gynaecological cancers.

Most women will experience bloating, pelvic discomfort or changes in bowel habits at some point, but many of us are unaware that these symptoms could be an early warning sign for gynaecological cancers.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of these cancers, being familiar with what’s normal for you and getting any changes checked without delay, can lead to an early diagnosis at a stage when the cancer is easier to treat. 

We spoke to women’s health experts, Dr Jane Benjamin, a GP at HCA Healthcare UK, and Miss Adeola Olaitan, Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist at The Wellington Hospital and chair of HCA UK’s gynaecology cancer board, to find out more.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women in the UK, but there’s a lack of awareness about the most common signs and symptoms.

A study by Target Ovarian shows that fewer than two in 10 women would book an urgent appointment (within a week) with a GP if they were experiencing persistent bloating. Although bloating can be associated with many health conditions, frequent and persistent bloating can be one of the early warning signs of ovarian cancer – so it’s always important to discuss this with your GP.

Dr Benjamin explains, ‘Symptoms of ovarian cancer do appear at early stages and your GP wants to hear about any changes to your health or any new symptoms you may be experiencing. Of course, these symptoms can be related to other common health conditions, but it is important that you discuss this with your GP so that we can rule out a cancer diagnosis. Even if it isn’t cancer, getting to the bottom of your symptoms means we can help treat the underlying cause.’

Other common symptoms of ovarian cancer include pain or tenderness in your tummy, loss of appetite or feeling full quickly, unexplained tiredness, unexplained weight loss, needing to urinate more often or more urgently, and lower back pain.

Dr Benjamin says, ‘Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage as the symptoms may be attributed to other common health problems. It is important not to ignore symptoms or put off having them checked’.

‘If you do have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice and further investigations. Make sure you give your GP as much detail as possible and mention any other changes to your health or body, even if you think they are unrelated. This will help us get you the right tests and a diagnosis as soon as possible.’

Ovarian cancer can run in families. This is often referred to as a hereditary risk and means that you may have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer based on a history of cancer in your family. 

For example, if you have two or more close relatives from the same side of your family who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you may be at a higher risk. A family history of other types of cancers, such as breast or bowel cancer, can also increase your hereditary risk of ovarian cancer. This is because these cancers may be caused by a genetic mutation.

If you are concerned about your risk of developing ovarian cancer, you might benefit from visiting a consultant geneticist to better understand your personal risk and the options available to you.

Learn more about how gynaecological cancers are diagnosed.

Endometrial cancer

Endometrial cancer develops in the lining of the womb. It is the most common type of gynaecological cancer.

The risk of endometrial cancer increases with age and it is more common after the menopause. People with diabetes and people with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer. Being overweight is also associated with a higher risk of developing endometrial cancer.

The main symptoms of endometrial cancer include bleeding after the menopause, heavy periods that are unusual for you, bleeding between periods and a change to your vaginal discharge. Other symptoms can include a lump or swelling in your tummy, pain in your lower back or pelvis, pain during sex and blood in your urine.

Miss Olaitan says, ‘Any vaginal bleeding after the menopause is an early warning sign of endometrial cancer. If you get bleeding after your periods have stopped for a year, and you’re not on HRT, and there’s no other reason, then you must seek help for any abnormal bleeding.

'A high body mass index (BMI) is a risk factor for endometrial cancer and the reason for that is body fat makes oestrogen. The more oestrogen you have around after the menopause, the higher your risk. There is also a familial link: people with Lynch syndrome have a gene that increases the risk of endometrial cancer and bowel cancer. These people typically have a family history of endometrial cancer or bowel cancer at a young age.’

Finding endometrial cancer earlier makes it easier to treat, so it’s important to get any symptoms of endometrial cancer checked as soon as possible. 

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women in the UK, but there’s a lack of awareness about the most common signs and symptoms.

A study by Target Ovarian shows that fewer than two in 10 women would book an urgent appointment (within a week) with a GP if they were experiencing persistent bloating. Although bloating can be associated with many health conditions, frequent and persistent bloating can be one of the early warning signs of ovarian cancer – so it’s always important to discuss this with your GP.

Dr Benjamin explains, ‘Symptoms of ovarian cancer do appear at early stages and your GP wants to hear about any changes to your health or any new symptoms you may be experiencing. Of course, these symptoms can be related to other common health conditions, but it is important that you discuss this with your GP so that we can rule out a cancer diagnosis. Even if it isn’t cancer, getting to the bottom of your symptoms means we can help treat the underlying cause.’

Other common symptoms of ovarian cancer include pain or tenderness in your tummy, loss of appetite or feeling full quickly, unexplained tiredness, unexplained weight loss, needing to urinate more often or more urgently, and lower back pain.

Dr Benjamin says, ‘Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage as the symptoms may be attributed to other common health problems. It is important not to ignore symptoms or put off having them checked’.

‘If you do have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice and further investigations. Make sure you give your GP as much detail as possible and mention any other changes to your health or body, even if you think they are unrelated. This will help us get you the right tests and a diagnosis as soon as possible.’

Ovarian cancer can run in families. This is often referred to as a hereditary risk and means that you may have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer based on a history of cancer in your family. 

For example, if you have two or more close relatives from the same side of your family who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you may be at a higher risk. A family history of other types of cancers, such as breast or bowel cancer, can also increase your hereditary risk of ovarian cancer. This is because these cancers may be caused by a genetic mutation.

If you are concerned about your risk of developing ovarian cancer, you might benefit from visiting a consultant geneticist to better understand your personal risk and the options available to you.

Learn more about how gynaecological cancers are diagnosed.