Health

'I was too embarrassed to talk about my periods'

Women relaxing and reading a book Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Talking about gynaecological cancers is not easy but womb cancer rates are on the rise

Womb cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK, with around 9,000 cases diagnosed each year, but it is rarely mentioned or talked about - even among women.

Daloni Carlisle, from Kent, is passionate about encouraging women to talk about their bodies so that they recognise the symptoms of a cancer which is affecting more and more women, particularly the over-50s.

She says it's all about using the right vocabulary and being open with friends.

"In 2013, before I was diagnosed, I would not have had a conversation about my periods. I just didn't talk about them.

"But we need to know what's normal and what's not normal with our bodies and that should start with conversations among women."

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Media captionDaloni Carlisle said treatment for womb cancer had taken a year and a half out of her life

Daloni was diagnosed when she'd just turned 50 after experiencing prolonged bleeding.

"I'd never heard of womb cancer, it was simply not discussed. Most women have heard of ovarian and breast cancer but there was nobody talking about womb cancer."

She assumed it was the menopause starting and by the time she was referred to a gynaecologist, the cancer was already advanced. Massive surgery was required, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

It was a brutal, horrendous experience which took a year to recover from, she says.

Womb cancer is just one of five gynaecological cancers that start in the female reproductive system, but it is the most common - and rates are expected to rise by 56% by 2030.

There is a clear link between rising levels of obesity and womb cancer in the UK, driven by fat cells which trigger the growth of the lining of the womb. Being over 50 years old and having diabetes and hypertension are also known risk factors.

Overcoming embarrassment

As a result, the Eve Appeal charity has set up a dedicated phone line to provide advice and information on women's cancers.

Tracie Miles, a gynaecological cancer nurse specialist, is delivering the new service, called Ask Eve, and she says making women more aware of the symptoms to look out for is her most important task.

But many years of working with women from diagnosis through treatment to follow-up has taught her that embarrassment prevents many women talking about changes to their patterns of bleeding.

And that often means they are good at ignoring signs of abnormal vaginal bleeding - after the menopause or between periods.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The main early sign of womb cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding - after the menopause

Most womb cancers occur in women who have gone through the menopause, around their 50s, so they will have seen their periods tail off, Tracie says.

"Women are used to having periods, then not having them, so a bit of bleeding or discharge and they tend to shrug their shoulders and say, 'It's probably nothing.'"

She tells the story of a woman who only went to see her GP after noticing specks of blood on her white knickers.

"Usually she wore black ones, and would never have noticed if she hadn't treated herself to some white ones after going through the menopause," she says.


Facts about womb cancer

  • It's the fourth most common cancer in females in the UK, with 9,000 cases diagnosed in 2013
  • Since the late 1970s, womb cancer incidence rates in females have increased by around 65% in Great Britain
  • Rates of womb cancer are increasing and by 2030, rates are set to rise by 56%
  • Symptoms are vaginal bleeding after the menopause or bleeding between periods
  • Leading a healthy, active lifestyle to prevent becoming overweight can reduce the risk of developing the cancer
  • The most common cancers in women are breast, lung, bowel and womb

Source: Cancer Research UK


Tracie's wish is that women become a little more aware because womb cancer is eminently treatable and curable.

"Just look when you pull your knickers down. It is something we do every day."

The standard treatment for womb cancer is surgery to remove the womb (hysterectomy). If it is picked up early enough, there is no need for radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Prof Martin Widschwendter, head of the department for women's cancer and consultant gynaecological oncology surgeon at UCL's Institute for Women's Health, says spotting those signs is easy compared with ovarian cancer, for example.

"Bleeding in post-menopausal women is very unusual and a very early sign of womb cancer so GPs will refer straight away. With a clear diagnosis at stage 1 there is a very good prognosis."

Body talk

Daloni's tumour returned towards the end of 2015 and she has since had more internal radiotherapy treatment.

Fit and healthy with a full head of hair, she is enjoying life again - but she is also realistic.

"The reality is it's going to be back, but I can either live in a catastrophic future that hasn't happened yet or live for today."

In the meantime, she feels very strongly about encouraging younger and older women to talk about their gynaecological health so that they are aware of what's happening with their bodies.

"It's not easy to talk about - and it's good to know that there's someone out there who will help you talk about it."

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