This month is Gynaecological Awareness Month, an important time to raise awareness about the different gynaecological cancers affecting women that are not often talked about.
Dr Kasey Tawhara is a gynaecologist working at Rotorua Hospital. She says, while Kiwis hear a bit about cervical cancer, there's a worrying lack of awareness about the other four: ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulval cancers.
Of the 1,000 New Zealanders diagnosed each year with a gynaecological cancer, a third of them will have ovarian cancer with an average five-year survival rate of around 37 percent, a rate less than half both breast and prostate cancer.
Uterine/endometrial cancer the most common
Tawhara says uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer, is the most common gynecological cancer that wāhine undergo. It begins in the lining of the uterus and is the deadliest.
“It is more associated with some of the metabolic conditions. So the risk factors for endometrial cancer are obesity, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), polycystic ovarian syndrome so they are those conditions that are prevalent in Māori and so the way we can identify that is by early recognition of symptoms,” Tawhara says.
According to the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation, some of the most common symptoms for uterine cancer are abnormal bleeding from the vagina - especially in women who have had their menopause and stopped having periods.
Tawhara says wāhine Māori are more at risk to have endometrial cancer, “mainly because the burden of disease for things such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension are more prevalent with us.”
Tawhara says part of Gynaecological Awareness Month is about educating people about the symptoms for gynaecological cancers “because they are vague”. There are no screening options to detect four out of the five gynaecological cancers, so it is important people know the signs.
“Symptoms can be as common as bloating, tiredness, lower back pain. What wāhine doesn’t at some point come across those sorts of things in their busy lives anyway?”
Tāne also to learn
Tawhara says there’s also an element of whakamā or embarrassment that wāhine experience which makes them not want to talk about their symptoms.
“It can be invasive to try and have a kōrero about this, have an examination all those sorts of reasons.”
She says the best way to overcome the whakamā is by talking.
“Ko te mea nui, he kōrero, he kōrero, he kōrero and not just for wāhine actually. So I think if we’re going to normalise talking about some of these symptoms, talking about our tara, our teke, then we actually have to talk not just to our friends and whanau who are wāhine but to our sons, our brothers, our partners, " Tawhara says.
“I think we should all be aware that normalising this kōrero will mean that when a wāhine does experience some of those symptoms that feel really different to her day to day, she’s not going to feel embarrassed to have that kōrero to her takuta (doctor) about it because she already run it past her home.”
Tawhara says wāhine should visit their doctor if they have any concerns.