Women are ignoring a potential key symptom of cancer by not getting unexpected vaginal bleeding checked out by a doctor, a charity has warned.
New research from The Eve Appeal, Always, Always Discreet and Tesco has revealed awareness is worryingly low that abnormal bleeding can be a red flag symptom of three out of the five gynaecological cancers - womb, cervical and vaginal.
There are four main types of abnormal bleeding that you should be looking out for, according to the campaign team: after menopause, between periods, heavy periods (bleeding that is much heavier or more painful than what is normal for you), and bleeding after sex.
For their Know Your Normal campaign, the team looked at YouGov data from 2,018 adults.
They found that less than half of women (45%) are aware that very heavy periods can be a symptom of a gynaecological cancer, and less than two thirds (58%) know that vaginal bleeding after the menopause or after sex could be a cancer symptom.
Overall, only 31% of women were aware of all of the types of vaginal bleeding that could be a symptom of gynaecological cancer – a figure that The Eve Appeal say is "worryingly low".
Meanwhile, a survey conducted in 2020 revealed that 80% of women would not visit a doctor if they experienced any unexpected vaginal bleeding, despite this being a red flag symptom for womb, cervical, and vaginal cancer.
The campaign hopes to change this by encouraging women to "know their normal" and be aware that they need to get abnormal bleeding checked as soon as possible, which could help save lives.
"With cancer, early diagnosis is key, and getting abnormal bleeding checked at the earliest opportunity leads to much better outcomes," explains Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal. "It might not be cancer, but best to rule it out."
Essentially, if you’re noticing blood outside of your usual menstruation period, it is important not to ignore it but instead speak to your GP or gynaecologist.
Minister for Health, Jo Churchill, said: "It’s so important for women to know what is normal for them and it’s vital to see their doctor if they notice anything unusual to find out what is causing it."
Watch: Steph McGovern has cervical smear test live on TV in bid to raise cancer awareness.
Vijaya Varilly, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2020, knows first hand how vital it is to raise awareness of the signs of gynaecological cancer.
Her heavy periods were a warning sign that something might be wrong.
"I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 31 on day six of the pandemic," she says. "It was a shocking diagnosis given that I had clear cervical screening (smear tests) and no instantly recognisable symptoms.
"I had forced the doctor to refer me to a specialist though, as my period pains were soul destroying.
"At the time, they were extremely heavy, never on time and sometimes lasting up to ten days.
"To me, this was not normal. It didn’t make sense to me compared to close pals who would sometimes boast that they didn’t even need to wear a tampon.
"Luckily for me, listening to my body meant that I was diagnosed with stage 1 cervical cancer, it was treatable, I didn’t have to have any chemotherapy and after two small procedures, I got the all-clear just three months later.
"My advice to anyone reading this is: know the red flags and talk about them loudly and proudly with anyone and everyone.
"Normalising these conversations is a matter of life and death, so let’s keep banging the drum."
To raise awareness and encourage people to check their bleeding, QR codes will be at the point of sale for Always and Always Discreet products in Tesco.
Scan the code and you’ll see expert information from The Eve Appeal on abnormal bleeding and gynaecological cancers.
In addition, for every pack of Always or Always Discreet sold in Tesco, a donation will be made to support the Eve Appeal.
How to get to Know Your Normal
If you have periods, keep a note of them so you can see what your regular/normal period patterns look like.
If you don’t have periods, but experience any other vaginal bleeding, do track that too.
Regularly check back over your last few entries so that you can spot and report any changes.
Don’t disregard very heavy and/or very painful periods.
What counts as a heavy period? Everyone is different and will have a different period, losing different amounts of blood, but generally speaking:
Heavy bleeding for 7 days or more
Pain/heavy flow that disrupts your daily activities
If you need to change your tampon/pad every hour or so
Discharge is a perfectly normal part of having a healthy vagina and is how the vagina cleans itself. The amount of discharge we get varies throughout our monthly cycle and is normally anything from a clear colour to a creamy/light yellow. If you experience any pink, red or brown discharge, also called ‘bloody discharge’ note it down.
The Know Your Normal campaign will run from 16 June to 27 of July. Find out more about the campaign at eveappeal.org.uk