Vulval cancer: Woman undiagnosed for seven years

By Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC News NI Health Correspondent

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A County Down woman who has had surgery following vulval cancer is appealing to women to check themselves and be aware of changes in their genital area.

Jill Gordon was diagnosed by chance in 2018, after her cancer went undetected for seven years.

Every year, about 30 NI women are diagnosed with cancer of the vulva, which is a woman's external genitals.

It is thought that greater awareness of symptoms could mean more women seeking GP help and starting treatment sooner.

"Check your vulva, make this vulval Friday," said Jill. "We check our breasts and don't think anything about it.

"So when you check the pair, check down there."

media captionJill Gordon was diagnosed with vulval cancer in 2018

Jill had many of the symptoms associated with vulval cancer, but was treated for other things.

"I was very itchy and was treated for thrush. That area was white and sore. It bled and stung when I passed urine. This went on for years."

Speaking to BBC News NI, Jill said there was a lack of knowledge about it and a sense of embarrassment because of where it is.

"GPs blamed it on the menopause and my age, even though I was only in my 40s. They didn't know what to do with me - lots of GPs have never seen it."

Cancer specialists are also appealing to women in Northern Ireland to be more aware of symptoms associated with vulval cancer.

For the first time, the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust has held a vulval health and wellbeing event.

It is hoped it will ease embarrassment while, at the same time, increasing knowledge, not only of the vulval anatomy, but also symptoms to look out for.

image captionDr Mark McComiskey stressed the importance of speaking about vulval cancer to 'break the taboo'

Dr Mark McComiskey, a consultant in gynaecological oncology, said: "Vulval cancer, if left untreated, can be very serious - indeed it can be life threatening.

"Women should present as early as possible, because a large vulval tumour requires more radical treatment and the complications, side effects and long-term effects can be much more severe.

"Surgery can involve removing quite a large area and we try to avoid doing that where possible.

"Vulval cancer continues to be a taboo subject and it shouldn't be. We are speaking out to try and break this taboo and to get women to be more aware about their vulval health."

The exact cause of vulval cancer in unclear, but increasing age, persistent infection, skin conditions affecting the vulva, such as lichen sclerosus, as well as smoking, can increase a woman's risk.

How vulval cancer is treated

The main treatment is surgery to remove the cancerous tissue from the vulva and any lymph nodes containing cancerous cells.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy may often be used without surgery.

Elish McColgan, a gynae oncologist specialist, said: "The earlier a cancer is diagnosed the better.

image captionElish McColgan said women should act immediately if symptoms persist

"It can mean smaller treatment and less radical. Sometimes, I see patients who have been waiting to go to their doctor for up to seven months - that is too long.

"We would urge women to act immediately if the symptoms persist."

The outlook for Jill is good. With checkups every three months, she described those who looked after her in Belfast Cancer Centre as "genius".

But she is keen to raise awareness and decrease the stigma around this type of illness.

"Get a mirror, involve your partner if you want. You've got to be familiar with what is normal for you, so you can recognise if there's a new lesion, a white spot, an ulcerated area," she said.

"You've got to know what your bits look like, so if there's a problem, you can do something about it."

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