LIFESTYLE

The Myth That Gynaecological Cancers Are Caused By Sexual Promiscuity Is Killing Women Unecessarily

01/09/2015 00:00 BST | Updated 14/04/2016 12:58 BST

Gynaecological cancers are not caused by sexual promiscuity, yet this common misconception is costing women their lives, a leading charity has warned.

According to the new survey released by women’s cancer research charity The Eve Appeal, one in five women believe that gynaecological cancers are associated with sexual promiscuity, while almost 40% feel that there is a greater stigma around gynaecological cancers than other forms of the disease.

This stigma is preventing women from seeking potentially life-saving medical advice, with a quarter of respondents saying that they are put off talking to their GP about gynaecological health problems because they don’t want to discuss their sexual history.

While there is a causal link between some forms of gynaecological cancers and the sexually transmitted High Risk Human Papilloma Virus (HRHPV), the virus is so common that it can be considered a normal consequence of sexual activity.

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It is thought that 80% of people will contract some form of the HPV virus in their lifetime and it can occur in those who have had just one sexual partner, so is hardly a sign of "sexual promiscuity".

There is currently no known association between HRHPV or any other sexually transmitted diseases and the two most common gynaecological cancers - ovarian or womb cancer.

Dr Adeola Olaitan, consultant gynaecological oncologist at UCL Hospital commented: "It’s shocking that so many women are avoiding seeking help for gynaecological health problems for fear of being judged on their sexual behaviour.

"It is a proven fact that early diagnosis of women’s cancers can save lives, so it’s important that we all start having honest conversations about the signs and symptoms of these diseases in order to break down the social taboos and any embarrassment that currently exist."

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These taboos are just one of the barriers to early diagnosis of gynaecological cancers identified by the survey, as the data also highlights a reluctance to seek medical help for many of the most common symptoms of the diseases, particularly among women aged between 46 and 55.

Respondents within this generational "danger zone" were most likely to ignore gynaecological health symptoms in the hope that they would go away (38%) or think that they were not urgent enough to see a GP about (21%).

One in five women aged 46-55 even said they hadn’t sought medical advice for symptoms such as changes to periods, persistent bloating or pelvic discomfort because they believed they were normal for someone of their age.

In reality, postmenopausal bleeding is a key symptom of womb cancer, which women of this age group are at higher risk of developing - almost three quarters (73%) of cases in the UK are diagnosed in women aged between 40 and 74.

Age is also a significant factor in the incidence rate of other gynaecological cancers. Three quarters of ovarian cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in women over 55, and vaginal and vulval cancers occur most commonly in women over 60.

With so many factors contributing to the attitudes and perceptions around gynaecological health there is a clear need for further debate around the topic and the survey findings support this, as 85% of respondents agreed that discussing the symptoms of gynaecological cancer more openly could help save lives.

A further 34% stated that they would feel more comfortable talking about gynaecological health problems if the sexual stigma surrounding these issues was reduced.

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This isn't the first survey to find that embarrassment about sex might cause women to put their health at risk.

Earlier this month, a study conducted by Ovarian Cancer Action discovered an alarming amount of women fear intimate examination, with 66% saying they'd be too embarrassed to say the word "vagina" to a doctor.

Commenting on the most recent study, Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal, said: "At The Eve Appeal we are committed to tackling the stigma around gynaecological cancers and our greatest tools for achieving this are education and conversation.

"That’s why it’s critical that women open up and share their experiences and concerns around gynaecological health so that we can begin to address the misconceptions around the causes and symptoms of women’s cancers that have been highlighted in this survey."

The Eve Appeal are launching their Eve4Eve fundraising campaign on 1st September, aimed at encouraging women to host a fun night in to raise money for the essential research that the charity funds – as well as getting friends and family together to open up about gynaecological issues and share their knowledge and experiences of gynaecological cancers.

Dr Clare McKenzie, vice president for Education at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: "We fully support The Eve Appeal raising awareness of gynaecological cancers, and changing the devastating statistics, that 55 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer every day. Early detection is key to increasing survival rates, and the results of this survey highlight the need to educate on the signs and symptoms."

To find out more about Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month (GCAM) 2015 visit eveappaeal.org.