There’s a reason doctors spend seven years training in medical school – anatomy is hard, no doubt about it.
The human body has up to 78 organs, with more than 7 of those making up the female reproductive system in a woman’s body. So when it comes to understanding the inner workings of our nether regions, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little clueless. Not to mention a tad embarrassed – it’s not exactly dinner table conversation.
Figuring out the differences between cervical and ovarian cancers can get seriously confusing. So, take a look at our short guide below, helping you make sense of the differences and – most importantly – explaining what signs and symptoms we all need to be aware of for these easily confused types of female cancer.
Where is my cervix?
The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb and sits in the bottom part of your abdomen, just next to the bladder.
What causes cervical cancer?
Nearly all cervical cancers are the result of HPV (human papilloma virus) which causes a change in cell DNA in the cervix. For this reason, the NHS introduced a HPV vaccination programme in 2008 offered to girls around 12-13 years old. From September 2019, the HPV vaccine will be offered to both girls and boys aged 12 and 13. The HPV vaccine protects against 4 types of HPV, including 2 types which cause more than 7 in 10 cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine significantly reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer, but it doesn’t mean that screening is no longer required as it doesn’t protect against all cervical cancers, some of which can display no symptoms for many years. Always go to your cervical screening when invited. It’s also important to note that HPV is an incredibly common virus spread by skin-to-skin contact. You could become infected by HPV from just one sexual partner – despite the popular myth, having the virus is not a stamp of having lots of sexual partners and is nothing to be embarrassed about. Around 85% of women will have HPV at some point in their lifetime – most of the time it does not cause any problems and is cleared by your body within 2 years.
Common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer
Because of the cervix’s proximity to the womb, abnormal bleeding is often associated with cervical cancer. So be aware of things like bleeding between periods, bleeding during or after sex as well as bleeding after menopause. This kind of unusual bleeding can have a perfectly innocent cause like hormonal changes, but it’s always better to get it checked by your doctor. Pain in your pelvis, pain during sex or unpleasant, heavy discharge are also signs to look out for.
Where are my ovaries?
The ovaries are also in the lower part of your abdomen, underneath your belly button. They are a set of two 3-5cm oval-shaped objects during childbearing years (they get smaller after the menopause), similar to two large grapes and are both attached to the womb by the Fallopian tubes.
What causes ovarian cancer?
It’s not exactly clear what causes ovarian cancer but we do know there are certain factors, like older age, that put a woman at more risk of developing it. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, being overweight or obese, and post-menopausal hormones can account for around 1 in 10 of ovarian cancers. Some genetic mutations, such as the ones affecting the BRCA1 and the BRCA2 genes can make a woman much more likely to develop ovarian cancer. If you have a family history of breast and ovarian cancers, you may want to ask your doctor about genetic counselling or testing.
Common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer
The ovaries position in your tummy means that when ovarian cancer is present, women often feel persistently and uncomfortably bloated. Feeling like you get full very quickly while eating, losing your appetite, pain in your tummy, needing to wee more often and changes in bowel habits (such as the symptoms of IBS) should also be checked out by your doctor as possible ovarian cancer symptoms.
Although it’s not easy to talk about some parts of our bodies, it’s really important to try and be open and honest when you feel something’s not quite right. If you are worried about any of the symptoms above, your doctor will be more than happy to see you. When caught early, the outcomes for many cancers are much more positive. Make sure you know the signs and don’t delay in seeing your GP if you feel you need to.