Irregular vaginal bleeding – that is, any unexpected vaginal bleeding that occurs outside of the normal menstrual cycle or after the menopause is a sign of abnormality. In many cases it is simply a sign of an infection like pelvic inflammatory disease, an STI or cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix). It could also be due to endometriosis (growth of uterine lining outside of the uterus) or of polycystic ovarian syndrome.
However, a rare cause of abnormal vaginal bleeding is uterine or vaginal cancer or another cancer of the female reproductive system. That is why it is important for any woman having unexpected bleeding to have a pelvic examination to determine the cause of the bleeding. In the event that there is cancer present, timely diagnosis leads to prompt treatment and could save a life.
Uterine cancer are malignant cells in the uterine tissue. Sometimes non-cancerous cell growths can occur (benign tumours). The main symptom of uterine cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding. Other symptoms are pelvic pain, vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse and pain when urinating. Women most at risk of developing this type of cancer are those who have never had children, menopausal women, those who have taken hormone replacement therapy, those taking tamoxifen, an anti-cancer drug for breast cancer, obese women and women with a family history of uterine cancer.
Vaginal cancer is a rare form of cancer that develops in the cells of the vagina. Symptoms are abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, pain during intercourse or feeling a lump in the vaginal canal. It occurs most often in women over the age of 60 or in those whose mother’s took the drug Diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic oestrogen that was given to pregnant women. Exposed female offspring have a higher than average chance of developing vaginal cancer.
Diagnosis is reached using:
Pelvic Examination - A pelvic examination with a speculum will be offered so the doctor can see if there are any abnormalities or infections of the vagina and cervix.
Smear Test – During the pelvic exam a smear test can be done. This is when a small sample of cells are taken from the cervix to analyse them for the presence of cancer or pre-cancerous cells and identify whether cells are benign or malignant.
Ultrasound – This painless scan can give the doctor a window into the uterus and allow him to see if there are any structural abnormalities or other problems that could account for the symptoms.
Hysteroscopy – If the ultrasound shows possible changes, an hysteroscopic examination could confirm the diagnosis. A hysteroscope is a thin telescope with a light that is passed into the uterus via the vagina. A picture of the inside of the uterus is then relayed on a TV screen. This is usually done under a light general anaesthetic for comfort.
79% of women will survive uterine cancer for five years or more and over half of all women with vaginal cancer survive a decade or more. The earlier that medical help is sought when a woman has symptoms, the greater the chance of a complete recovery.