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An overview of rare gynaecological cancers

A rare cancer is one that is diagnosed in less than 6 in 100,000 Australians per year. Less common cancers are defined as having an incidence of between 6 and 12 per 100,000 Australians per year.

People with rare cancers are more likely to die from their disease than people with more common cancers. The Cancer Council Australia reports rare and less common cancers account for half of all cancer deaths. There are a few reasons for this. Rare cancers are often diagnosed at more advanced and harder to treat stages, due to a lack of symptoms and awareness. Treatments for many rare cancers have not advanced at the same pace as treatments for more common cancers. This is because it is difficult to perform research studies and clinical trials due to limited funding, and there is a smaller population who meet the criteria to participate in clinical trials.

Rare gynaecological cancers

As with all types of cancers, gynaecological cancers occur when cells grow and mutate in an uncontrolled way.

There are five main types of gynaecological cancers which affect the female reproductive system and genitals including cervical, uterine, ovarian (including fallopian tube), vulval and vaginal. Of these, rarer forms of gynaecological cancer include vulval, vaginal and fallopian tube.

Cervical, uterine, and ovarian are not considered rare or uncommon, however they can be further categorised into sub-types of cancers. Some subtypes are rarer than others.

Below, I provide more information on rare gynaecological cancers including vulval, vaginal, and fallopian.

Vulval cancer

In Australia, vulval cancer is uncommon with only 400 women newly diagnosed every year. It is mostly a disease of postmenopausal women, although can affect women at any age.

The vulva refers the external skin of the female genitals and includes the opening of the vagina, the labia majora, the labia minora, the pubic mound, the perineum and the clitoris.

Symptoms of vulvar cancer can include:

  • A lump on the vulva. Most patients present with a fleshy, nodular or warty mass, plaque or ulcer on the labia.
  • Persistent itching, tenderness or burning of the vulva that does not go away.
  • Changes in the skin of the vulva, including colour changes or growths that look like a wart or ulcer.
  • Abnormal bleeding.

Women who notice a lesion of some sort or a growth on the vulva should seek a doctor’s appointment for a clinical examination. A biopsy will establish or exclude a diagnosis of vulvar cancer.

Vaginal cancer

Vaginal cancer is the least common gynaecological cancer in Australia, with just under 100 women diagnosed each year. Typically, this cancer is diagnosed in postmenopausal women, although rarely can be diagnosed in younger women too.

Vaginal cancer develops in the tissue of the vagina. The vagina is the internal passage that starts at the opening in your vulva and runs through to your cervix.

Symptoms of vaginal cancer can include:

  • Blood-stained vaginal discharge that is not related to menstrual bleeding, and may have an unusual smell
  • Pain during or bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Pain in the pelvic area or rectum
  • A lump in the vagina.
  • Problems with passing urine, such as blood in the urine, and the need to pass urine frequently or during the night

Women who notice any of the above symptoms should see a GP for a gynaecological examination.

Fallopian tube cancer

Primary fallopian tube cancer accounts for less than half of one percent of all cancers in Australian women (about 70 per year).

Fallopian tube cancer occurs in one or both of the fallopian tubes. The fallopian tubes are two tubes (one on either side of the uterus) that connect the ovaries to the uterus and transport the egg from the ovary to the uterus each month. Treatment for fallopian cancer is similar to ovarian cancer.

Symptoms can be similar to ovarian cancer, and are more likely to be apparent at later stages. These include:

  • Lump or swelling in the abdomen
  • Abdominal, or pelvic pain
  • Pressure-like sensation on the bowel or bladder
  • Unable to empty bowel, bladder completely
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding/discharge, particularly bleeding after menopause

If you have any concerns about rare gynaecological cancers, or think you may be displaying  symptoms, schedule an appointment with your GP in the first instance, who can then refer you to a gynaecological oncologist for further investigation and management if required.

If you are concerned about any of these symptoms and wish to discuss them with a Gynaecological Oncologist, please enquire about an appointment.

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