Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 10:40 UK

Myths dispelled about 'silent' cancers

By Natalie Lindo
BBC News

Women are urged to get tested regularly and be aware of what is normal for them

"It's not something you really talk about to your friends, let alone a doctor - it's just a bit embarrassing even for me."

Pamela is a friendly woman who with a cup of tea in hand, is chatting away to the rest of the group at the Derry Well Woman centre as if she wouldn't be embarrassed about anything.

The talking subsides as we take our seats and Joan Rafferty, the new gynaecology nurse at Altnagelvin hospital, introduces herself.

The group of women are sitting in the centre, ready to take part in an informal information session about gynae cancers.

"The most important thing I can ask you to do is to know what's normal for your own body," she said.

"Noticing when your body changes is the best way to spot any symptoms."

Gynaecological cancers are often called the silent killer, but with early detection, survival rates for women in can be good and are improving.

Fewer than 1,000 women a year are diagnosed with ovarian, endometrial (womb), cervical, vulval and vaginal cancer in Northern Ireland.


One of the women at the session, Ann, said she is mainly frightened of ovarian cancer.

"You do hear people call it the silent killer, it's worrying because you sort of think by the time it's diagnosed it will be too late to treat."

Mrs Rafferty explained that the myths around ovarian cancer in particular are misleading.

"It's untrue there are no symptoms, some women suffer from pain in the pelvic area, persistent bloating and discomfort," she said.

"So there are signs and if you pick it up early enough, it's treatable.

"My aim as a nurse is not to increase anyone's anxiety but to increase your awareness."

I noticed more women and, in particular, young women coming forward since Jade Goody hit the headlines, which is good

Joan Rafferty
Gynaecology nurse

She added: "We will examine our breasts and check them but let's be honest how many of us examine our vulva area."

As the session continued several of the women spoke about Jade Goody and how her illness had raised their awareness of cervical cancer.

"It definitely made me more determined to make my daughter go and get checked out," said one of the women, Emma.

"She's had her letter to get a smear test even though she doesn't want to go, I think she just needs a bit of encouragement."

In fact, Emma herself had recently been for a smear test and was surprised at how different it was.

"It was a lot quicker and easier than in the past - it was done and over before I even realised."

Jade Goody
Jade Goody lost her battle with cervical cancer in March 2009

Charities across the UK did report a significant rise in women being tested after Jade Goody's diagnosis and subsequent death.

Rachel said it gave her the push she needed.

"It was embarrassing for me to go and get checked out but I'm glad I went because the problems were spotted straight away.

"Fortunately for me it wasn't cancer but if it had of been, I know that I noticed something was wrong straight away."

Mrs Rafferty said: "I noticed more women and, in particular, young women coming forward since Jade Goody hit the headlines, which is good.

"But for me the main question is whether this will be sustained."


Cathy has a look of nervousness as she admits she hasn't been for her smear test in years.

"I'm terrible, it's two years late and they keep sending me letters.

"The last time I went they said they couldn't read the test so I suppose the very reason I should've gone back is the reason that I haven't."

Mrs Rafferty explained that up until recently smears were done differently.

"With new technology and instruments things are definitely better," she said.

Affects about 18,400 women in the UK annually
Include ovarian, endometrial (womb), cervical, vulval and vaginal
Cases of gynaecological cancers is small compared to breast cancer which affects 41,000 women

"It is much quicker, more comfortable and more of the tests are viable and can be used so try not to worry."

"If after this I've helped or encouraged any of you to attend a screening or to be a little more self-aware then it has been worthwhile."

Joan Rafferty is the Gynaecology Oncology Nurse at Altnagelvin Hospital.

The names of the other women have been changed.

Print Sponsor

The Jade Goody effect on screening
22 Mar 09 |  Health
'You only have one life'
02 Dec 08 |  UK
Q&A: The cervical cancer vaccine
29 Sep 09 |  Health


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific