Life Wellbeing The cancer threat women shouldn’t be embarrassed talking about

The cancer threat women shouldn’t be embarrassed talking about

shh quiet secret
The incidence of vulvar cancer is increasing but women are too embarrassed to talk about it. Photo: Getty
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Vulvar cancer is increasing among Australian women amid calls to break the stigma associated with talking about sexual health.

A Cancer Council NSW study found that rates of vulvar cancer have increased by 20 per cent from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, with a 54 per cent surge in diagnoses for women aged under 60 years old.

This was significantly higher than the overall increase in women under 60 across 13 high-income countries – 38 per cent.

Vulvar cancer is relatively rare with about 300 Australian women diagnosed each year, in comparison to the thousands of men with prostate or testicular cancer.

Sexual health physician Terri Foran said it was time to break the stigma.

“A good start would be making the word ‘vulva’ OK,” she told The New Daily.

“It’s a fairly private area and we know any check-up would involve being examined. Many women find it intimidating and disconcerting, and feel pretty vulnerable with someone staring at their genitals to have a good look.

“And there can be cultural barriers as well stopping women from going to the doctor.

“Remember, for doctors, the vulva is just another organ.

Dr Foran said it was important to switch one’s mindset into being just as vigilant about skin down there as skin on the arm or face.

She added that given the changes to the skin of the vulva can be quite subtle, doctors could be asked to check this during a woman’s regular Pap test or HPV screening.

“It’s tricky to pick up on the subtle changes to how it feels and it’s even harder for women to have a good look.”

Symptoms of vulvar cancer include itchiness, burning sensations or soreness in the vulva. It could also cause bleeding in between periods.

CT scan
A CT scan can help find enlarged lymph nodes that might contain areas of cancer spread from the vulva. Photo: Getty

Cancer Council NSW’s Megan Smith, program manager in the cervix and HPV group, said vulvar cancer was typically more common in older women but the study showed it is increasing among younger ones.

“Up to 40 per cent of vulvar cancers are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus – a common sexually transmitted infection),” she told The New Daily.

“It’s likely this is due to the increased prevalence of HPV in women after the 1950s coinciding with a change in sexual behaviours in both men and women around that time.”

Cases of vulvar cancer are expected to further increase in the future due to Australia’s ageing and growing population.

However, the introduction of the HPV vaccination some 10 years ago may help to somewhat counteract the increase, particularly in younger women.

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