Why Regular Gynaecological Check-Ups Should Be The Norm
– BY DAFINA MALOVSKA –
Everyone has a story, and this is mine. My name is Dafina and I’m 39 years old. I’m originally from Macedonia but I’ve been living and working in London for 15 years. Five years ago, I was living a normal life, doing all the things young people do; working on my career, long hours in the office, travelling, making friends and generally enjoying life. But while I was planning my future, I didn’t know that my life was already in danger. I had no idea I was carrying a growing tumour, eventually weighing 500g.
‘I knew something wasn’t right when I started bleeding between my periods’
In July 2014, I started becoming very bloated, which was unusual for me. I saw my GP almost four months in a row, but she didn’t touch or examine my abdomen even once. Instead, eventually she sent me to see a gastroenterologist to have my stomach checked. The gastroenterologist didn’t discover anything either and only recommended me to take Activia Yogurt… So I tried to continue with my life as normal but with the constant bloating. Within a few months I started bleeding between my periods and then I knew that something was not right. I went to see a different GP who referred me to a gynaecologist.
‘The gynaecologist discovered I had a 14cm long tumour on my uterus’
However, I had to fly to Macedonia (my country of origin) to surprise my sister for her birthday and I was still waiting for the gynaecologist appointment in London. As soon as I arrived in Macedonia, I booked to see a private gynaecologist. The gynaecologist there did a proper check-up including a transvaginal ultrasound (complete pelvic examination) and quickly discovered that I had a huge tumour on my uterus, 14cm long. She advised me to have it removed immediately. I was booked in for an operation in four days’ time. I was terrified. The only thing that gave me the strength to proceed with the operation, was that I wanted to protect my uterus so I could still have children one day.
‘In order to save my life I had to have a total hysterectomy’
After the operation, I woke up in intensive care and immediately had a chest X-ray, which nobody explained why at the time. Then I was brought to my recovery room where I was told that they were waiting for the results of the tests on the tumour; this alarmed me. Shortly after that the surgeon entered the room and told me the life-changing news: ‘You have stage 2 womb cancer and it has spread to your ovaries’. I was devastated and so afraid of what I’d hear next… Would I survive or would I have just a few days to live? The surgeon advised me to go back into surgery that same evening to have my uterus and ovaries completely removed. In order to prevent the cancer from spreading and to ultimately save my life, I had to have a total hysterectomy.
‘After the operation I was put into immediate surgical menopause’
That was the second item of shocking news that day! This one sentence meant the plans for my future, of having my own big family one day, had completely disappeared. I discussed all the options with the surgeon and asked if I could freeze my eggs. However, as I had a very rare type of cancer, called Leiomyosarcoma which was oestrogen receptive, this option was out of the question. Since that day I’m not able to have my own children and after the operation I was put into immediate surgical menopause. It’s been five years since then and every day I have to deal with the consequences of early menopause, such as hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, mood swings, and osteopenia (lower bone density). I’m only 39!
‘Every day, women die from gynaecological cancer due to late diagnosis’
But I’m happy that I’m still alive and I can share my story with you. What happened to me I wouldn’t want to happen to anyone else, especially as this can be prevented simply if detected earlier. Sadly, more and more women and girls in the UK are diagnosed too late with some type of gynaecological cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, over 21,000 women are diagnosed every year (that’s 58 per day) with one of the five gynaecological cancers. These are: womb (9,300), ovarian (7,300), cervical (3,000), vaginal (240) and vulval cancer (1,300). Every day, 21 women die from gynaecological cancer due to late diagnosis.
Did you know that women in the UK are only tested for 1 out of the 5 gynaecological cancers? Cervical screening (the smear test – which is a preventative test) is the only available test for our reproductive health. It’s very important, but this test detects the likelihood of only one type of gynaecological cancer; cervical cancer. Around 3,000 women are diagnosed every year with cervical cancer, but over 18,000 are diagnosed with the other four types of cancers for which there’s no screening at all. I wonder how many of them were diagnosed too late.
‘Currently, the UK’s approach to healthcare is reactive, not preventative’
I had my smear test which showed that everything was normal a few months before my diagnosis of womb cancer. But, if I’d have had a chance to see a specialist in women’s health at least once in the previous years and had a full check-up including pelvic examination, my tumour – which grew to 14cm long and weighed 500g – would have been discovered much earlier. Also, I’d have had a chance to remove it before it spread to my other organs.
Currently, the UK’s approach to healthcare is reactive, not preventative. The system relies upon us discovering an issue ourselves and then going to our GP. But by the time we get the symptoms the issue has already developed, and it can be too late for any preventative measures, like it was in my case. Most gynaecological cancers aren’t detected early enough to be successfully treated. That’s because at the early stages, these cancers are often asymptomatic or present with non-specific symptoms. But we’re still told to wait for our symptoms to develop and then see our GP. This is wrong!
Women in the UK don’t get any regular gynaecological check-ups or any preventative screening for female organs. They suffer or die from conditions which would have been diagnosed and treated much earlier in other European countries. Gynaecological cancers and many abnormalities can be detected and diagnosed by a gynaecologist (through a basic gynaecologic exam) or by a GP with appropriate training. Regular pelvic examination is common practice in many countries worldwise, including France, Germany, Belgium, the US, the Philippines and even Macedonia! So why isn’t it in the UK?
‘Going for a gynae check-up should become just as normal as going to the dentist’
If it also becomes normal policy in the UK, it’ll save many lives by enabling the early diagnoses of gynaecological cancers that have no screening programmes. It’ll also pick up a range of conditions that significantly affect a women’s quality of life, such as endometriosis and fibroids. Offering yearly gynaecological check-ups from the age of 18 onwards will contribute towards educating women about their gynaecological health. It’ll also help to break the taboos around this subject and bring a positive change to the cultural and social attitudes towards women’s reproductive health. Last but not least, it’ll give women a chance to discuss any gynaecological concerns about periods, sex, contraception, fertility, pregnancy and menopause with a specialist, in confidence. By doing this, going for a gynae check-up will become just as normal as going to the dentist.
About the author:
Dafina Malovska has started a petition for yearly gynaecological check-ups in the UK for all women from adolescence. This #checkMEup petition has gained support from MPs, GPs and gynaecologists, but support from the people helps the most to make the difference. If you’d like to sign her petition on Change.org, please click here. Follow Dafina and the petition progress on Instagram or Twitter.
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