One day I will write a fun book about gynaecological cancers and looking after our vaginas. Until then, here is a short list of ten things that I think every woman (and man) should know. The icing and decoration is fun, but the cake mixture is serious. Some of the points might be blindingly obvious, in which case, sorry for being so basic. However, I hope everyone who reads this will learn at least one new thing, or be reminded of something they already know but might have forgotten. Vaginas, sex, bleeding, wombs and everything associated with what's between our legs is not the first choice of conversation for most people, but it is for me. I had cervical cancer just over two years ago, perform comedy about the whole debacle, and now work for The Eve Appeal, a charity that raises awareness and funds for research into gynae (look at me being all snazzy and shortening the word 'gynaecological') cancers. This means that most of my life is spent talking about awkward lady things. And I love it. If you enjoy this post, please share it so that we can spread as much knowledge and awareness as possible.
1. There are FIVE gynaecological cancers.
That's right, five different bits 'down there' that can get you entry to the cancer club. They are: womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal. Yes, the vagina and vulva are not the same thing. I like to think of the vulva as the letterbox and the vagina as the doormat.
2. If you are bleeding when you shouldn't be, see your doctor.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding (i.e. bleeding after the menopause, in between periods or after sex) is a symptom of four out of five gynae cancers (not vulval). It's probably nothing serious, or your boyfriend just has a huge penis, but you need to get it checked out by a doctor just in case.
3. Ovarian cancer is sneaky.
Most ovarian cancer isn't diagnosed until it has spread outside the ovary. One of the most common symptoms is persistent abdominal bloating, aka 'puffy tummy'. This is often misdiagnosed as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and therefore the cancer is left undiscovered for longer. If you feel bloated for three or more weeks, see your doctor and fingers crossed that you're just a gassy bitch.
4. GO FOR YOUR SMEAR TEST.
Smear tests save thousands of lives every year in the UK. They can detect abnormal cells that if left untreated, could turn into cervical cancer. Please, please, please don't avoid your appointment. Yes, it can be a bit awkward having a stranger give you a poke with a bit of plastic, but a few minutes could save your life. So take your knickers off and spread those legs.
5. Hashtag Don't Judge.
Almost all cervical cancers (plus some vaginal and vulval cancers) are caused by a virus called HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). There are sooo many different strands of HPV, but types 16 and 18 are the ones that can over time, turn cells in your cervix against you, which is a real bugger. HPV is caused through sexual contact. Condoms don't protect against it entirely and you can get it from just having sex once. Therefore, if someone has HPV it doesn't mean they are having dick for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, if they were, does it even matter? Most people who have had sex will get HPV at some point in their lives and only in very rare cases can the body not get rid of it. Then it might turn into cancer, but it might not. It's like very unlucky and scary Russian Roulette.
6. Don't suck, swallow or blow.
Cigarettes. Without going into boring science stuff, you're twice as likely to get cervical cancer if you smoke, so it's really not a good idea. I know a menthol cigarette, glass of sauvignon blanc, pub garden and outdoor heater burning the top of your head is the stuff that dreams are made of, and lord I have been guilty of living that dream. But. Just. Don't.
7. Losing lady parts doesn't make you less of a lady.
If you have a gynaecological cancer, chances are you will lose at least some of your 'lady parts'. Surgery is very likely, so yes, you might have your ovaries, or womb, or cervix, or vagina or vulva partially or entirely removed. I know that's sad and horrible, but please remember that you are no less of a woman just because you can't carry a baby, or because you need your labia rebuilt from your arse skin. You're amazing.
8. Make the jokes.
Oh my god it feels good to laugh, doesn't it? It's so much FUN to make jokes about awful things. If you don't want to, that's absolutely fine, but if you do laugh at the fact that you have now been fingered by more medical staff than lovers (like I have) then you are my new best friend and let's go and drink gin.
9. Have a night in.
With yourself. Aside from being on bleeding and bloating patrol, get to know your body. Touch yourself. Yes, that means what you think it means. What does your vagina feel like when you insert your finger(s)? What do your labia feel like when you rub them in between your thumb and index finger? If you do this regularly, you will notice if there is a change and can get a doctor's opinion if you need to.
10. Everyone handles a cancer diagnosis differently.
If you've had 'that news' then I'm really, really sorry. It's scary and weird. Please remember that there is no right or wrong way to 'have' cancer. It doesn't matter if you talk about at every opportunity or never utter a word. Just look after yourself and do whatever is right for you.