September is gynaecological cancer awareness month, a chance to reflect on our health ‘down there’ and to foster conversations around this still too taboo topic. It’s a worthy and urgent discussion: 1 New Zealander dies every 24 hours of gynaecological cancer, which includes ovarian, vulval, vaginal, cervical and uterine.
Much (valid!) attention is paid to normalising breast cancer and creating awareness of symptoms. Unfortunately, as the shock diagnosis of beloved Labour MP Kiri Allan showed earlier this year, there is a pressing need to make conversations around our gynaecological health just as common and mainstream.
We wanted to ask Tash Crosby of local charity Talk Peach some questions about gynaecological health, and what steps we should consider taking to empower ourselves (you could start with a smear). If you're in a position to do so, you can donate to the cause here.
Tash, herself an ovarian cancer survivor, established Talk Peach in 2019 with the ambition to educate New Zealanders about this area of healthcare, and to connect and support those who are diagnosed.
“We must break down this culture of silence,” says Tash. “It’s also heartbreaking to see that gynaecological cancers remain largely in the dark.”
As part of gynaecological cancer awareness month, Talk Peach has partnered with The Hello Cup on a special fundraiser, with 10% of sales from a limited edition ‘Hello Peach’ menstrual cup being donated to the charity.
They’ve also developed a social campaign to drive awareness; asking people to share a selfie high-fiving the camera and calling out one of the five gynaecological cancers (use the hashtag #TALKEDUCATESAVELIVES to get involved).
In the meantime, we hope you take something helpful away from our chat with Tash - and that it helps break down the facts and some of the stigma that still surrounds an important part of healthcare.
First things first: what is gynaecological health?
Gynaecological health covers the health of the reproductive organs - and under this category sits cancer of the ovaries, vagina, vulva, cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes.
Why is it so important to be aware of our gynaecological health?
Thanks to our national screening programme most of us have heard of cervical cancer which is great. But, as for the other four types (ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulval), there is no screening available. And, until recently, very little public information has been available.
Why is it so important for us to be having these conversations?
The statistics are grim. One New Zealander dies every 24 hours from gynaecological cancer.
What are the 5 gynaecological cancers to be aware of?
What can we do to look after our own gynaecological health?
Arm yourself with knowledge.
Know the signs and symptoms of each of the 5 gynaecological cancers - and act on them!
It's essential that everyone knows their 'normal'. We know our own bodies better than anyone else so don't compare your own health to someone else. If something doesn't feel right, speak to a professional. It's frightening, but empowering yourself with knowledge is key to early diagnosis and ultimately survival.
Some of the most common signs to look out for are:
• Abnormal bleeding: bleeding after sex/bleeding between periods/post menopausal bleeding
• Abdominal pain or discomfort
• Changes in vaginal discharge
• Back pain
• Pain during sex
• Changes in bowel habits: diarrhoea/constipation
• Eating habits: Feeling full quickly
• Urgency/frequency to pee
• Changes to the appearance of skin on the vagina/vulva
• Persistent bloating
Remember - each gynaecological cancer is unique.
We often think of gynaecological health as just one big thing. But these 5 cancers are entirely separate. They all have their own individual signs and symptoms. The Talk Peach website has a wealth of information about the individual cancers; their symptoms and risk factors.
Never ever feel silly for seeking medical advice.
Gynaecological cancer doesn't discriminate. It affects people of all ages - from teens through to post-menopause.
Put gynaecological health at the top of our priorities.
Gynaecological cancers can become very hard to treat when they progress. If you notice a change that is sustained for over 2 weeks, book in with your GP. Don't hesitate. Remember, you can always take a support person.
What’s something that you wish more people knew about?
There are no screening tools for 4 out of the 5 gynaecological cancers. Yet many New Zealanders think their recommended 3 yearly cervical smear is like 'one stop' check over for their gynae health. It's not.
Your cervical smear tests only for changes to cells in the cervix - it does NOT screen for the other 4 gynaecological cancers. That’s why knowing the signs and symptoms is crucial.
What should I do if I have concerns about my own gynaecological health?
I cannot stress enough the importance of acting upon changes and concerns. It saves lives. DON'T EVER feel silly about getting something that's bothering you checked out. And, if your symptoms persist after a visit to your GP - always return or seek a second opinion.
There seems to be more openness around these once ‘uncomfortable’ conversations regarding women’s health especially when it comes to periods or menopause. But why is gynaecological health still taboo?
This stigma often causes women to ignore health concerns. The fear of embarrassment can leave them suffering in silence. I've met ladies who have said their grandmother or mother died from one of the gynaecological cancers and they would tell people it was stomach cancer; simply due to the stigma.
We must break down this culture of silence surrounding gynaecological health.
It’s also heartbreaking to see that gynaecological cancers remain largely in the dark. A recent survey of people diagnosed with ovarian cancer found that 90 percent of them couldn't name a single symptom prior to their diagnosis. When I was diagnosed in 2017, I had never even heard of it.
When it comes to cervical cancer, it’s heartbreaking that our community is getting diagnosed with a largely preventable cancer type. Routine screening can detect precancerous abnormalities and reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by 90 percent.
Breast cancer awareness is a model to aspire to. It has taken years, but men talk about it, rugby teams wear pink, monuments light up to honour the fight against it. Talking about mammograms and breasts is socially fine now. We must do the same with talking about gynaecological health, vaginas and vulvas.
We applaud the continued efforts in the fight against breast cancer and believe with a similar commitment we can achieve the same for gynaecological cancers. And… let’s face it - the vagina is an amazing body part!