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A group of women learning about the early signs of cancer
By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

Cancers common in women: your support and resource guide

Your guide to getting support and treatment for cancers most common in women

Following the recent high-profile cancer diagnoses and the message that cancer need not be faced alone, we’ve put together a guide to help you understand every stage of the process. This article will cover everything relating to cancer in women, from symptoms to diagnosis, treatment and supporting a loved one when they need it most. Later this week, we will follow up with another piece looking at cancer in men. Whatever the diagnosis or however the disease may present, you and your loved ones are never alone.

Why us?

We have spent decades caring for patients across the UK and through our national network of over 50 hospitals, our specialist teams treat, support and care for thousands of patients with cancer each year. We know how distressing the news of a diagnosis can be. With our experience, as a leader in this field, we want to equip you with the information you need to understand the disease and how to navigate the process.

What is a cancer diagnosis?

Consultant discussing early signs and symptoms of cancer with female patient

We know that being diagnosed with cancer can be an overwhelming and distressing time. Having a clear understanding of how a diagnosis is made and how to get the help you need can make your journey to recovery that little bit easier. With the right diagnosis and medical support, many people recover from cancer and go on to live happy, healthy lives.

At the start of your journey, you are likely to be referred to a specialist by your GP because you are experiencing symptoms. You might have discovered an unusual lump in your breast or be experiencing gynaecological symptoms such as abnormal bleeding or painful bloating. In this case, you probably will be given an appointment with a consultant gynaecologist or oncologist who specialises in the diagnosis of women’s cancer. Your consultant can perform a variety of tests and scans at your appointment to understand the cause of your symptoms and whether you need cancer treatment.

Getting an early diagnosis makes all the difference

It’s important to visit your doctor as soon as you have unusual symptoms. They can refer you for the right tests and scans to assess your situation and help you reach a diagnosis as soon as possible.

Cancer that is diagnosed at an early stage, which means it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread to several parts of your body, is more likely to be treated successfully. It can mean an increase in the treatment options available to you, as well as improved long-term survival and quality of life.

National screening programmes in the UK mean screening is available to you at several stages during your life, making early detection and diagnosis accessible. The NHS cervical screening programme invites women from 25 to 64 to be screened for cervical cancer every three to five years depending on where you live.

The NHS breast screening programme also invites women from 50 to 70 for a screening every three years. In the meantime, checking your breasts for physical changes is a safe and secure way to monitor your breast health. We recommend checking your breasts for changes at least once per month, and going to your GP if you find a lump or experience any unusual symptoms.

It’s important to visit your doctor as soon as you have unusual symptoms. They can refer you for the right tests and scans to assess your situation and help you reach a diagnosis as soon as possible.

The most common types of women’s cancer in the UK

The most common cancers affecting women in the UK are:

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer found in women in the UK. Breast symptoms to look out for include:

  • A new lump or thickening in your breast or armpit
  • A change in the size, shape or feel of your breast
  • Skin changes in your breast such as puckering, dimpling, a rash or redness of your skin
  • Changes in the position of your nipple

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs when the cells in your ovaries start to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. Over time, they form a growth (tumour) in your ovary. This is a solid mass of tissue that can, if left untreated, spread into other areas of your body. The most common symptoms include:

  • Bloating and/or swelling in your stomach
  • Quickly feeling full when you're eating
  • Losing weight
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Changes in your bowel movements (constipation or diarrhoea)
  • Needing to pee more often
  • Gas or indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Bleeding from your vagina
  • Shortness of breath caused by a build-up of fluid around your lungs

Cervical cancer

Your cervix is a strong muscle between your womb and vagina. Cervical cancer develops when the cells in your cervix start functioning abnormally. When they grow or multiply in an uncontrolled way, they can cause tumours, similarly to ovarian cancer.

Uterine cancer

The uterus is another name for your womb, an important part of the female reproductive system. The most common type of womb cancer is when cells start to grow out of control in the lining of the womb (endometrium). This is also known as endometrial cancer.

Common uterine cancer symptoms include:

  • Bleeding after the menopause
  • Unusually heavy bleeding
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Vaginal discharge – pink, watery or white
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Weight loss

Vaginal cancer

This is rarer than other types of gynaecological cancer. The main symptoms are usually:

  • A lump in your vagina
  • Ulcers and other skin changes in or around your vagina
  • Bleeding from your vagina after the menopause
  • Bleeding between periods
  • An itch in your vagina that will not go away

The most common tests and scans for gynaecological cancer

From imaging scans (like X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans), to blood tests, to more specialised tests (such as endoscopies or biopsies), each test plays a crucial role in your diagnosis and treatment plan.

Understanding the purpose and process of these tests can make your experience smoother and less intimidating, which is why your consultant is there to answer any questions you have.

The most common tests for gynaecological cancer include an X-Ray, MRI, or CT scan. These tests use sophisticated technology to create detailed images of the inside of your body to look for cancerous cells. Specialist blood tests can also check for markers of cancer, as can taking a small sample of cells (also known as a biopsy) from inside your body to determine whether these are cancerous. This biopsy might have to be performed at a follow-up appointment as part of your wider diagnosis and treatment journey.

After your initial consultation, booking a follow-up appointment will be necessary to discuss test results, decide on a treatment plan, and begin your treatment journey.

A follow-up appointment also provides the opportunity to clarify any new information, ask further questions, and discuss the next steps in detail. It’s an integral part of your ongoing care, ensuring you feel supported and informed throughout your treatment process.

How do you treat breast cancer and gynaecological cancer

Following a series of specialist scans, a consultant will build a comprehensive picture of the patient’s health. No two patients are the same and approaching treatment in this way makes sure that a bespoke treatment plan is constructed specifically for you or your loved one. Treatment plans differ depending on the type of cancer. A diagnosis of breast or gynaecological cancer will usually focus on the following.

Common and effective treatment options for cancer

There are many options, which include:


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs. These drugs can stop cancer cells from dividing and reproducing. Some drugs are given on their own, but often several drugs are given together (combination chemotherapy). Chemotherapy may also be used with other types of cancer treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapies, or a combination of these.

The type of chemotherapy treatment given depends on:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • Where the cancer started in your body
  • What the cancer looks like under the microscope
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body


Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays and similar rays (such as electrons) to treat cancer. Many people will have radiotherapy combined with other forms of treatment as part of their plan. Radiotherapy treatment works by destroying the cancer cells in the targeted area. It can be administered in lots of different ways.

Hormonal therapy

This works by blocking the hormones that are causing the cancer to develop and grow. There are various types of hormone therapy treatments and oral medication available. The type of treatment prescribed will typically depend on both the type and stage of cancer you have.


This varies depending on the type of cancer you have. If you have breast cancer, you might need surgery to remove an area of cancer known as breast conserving surgery or a lumpectomy. In other cases, you might need a mastectomy, which involves removing your entire breast. The type of surgery you have depends on the size of cancer, where it is in your breast, and whether there is more than one area of cancer across your breast or breasts. You might also have surgery to make a new breast (breast reconstruction) after you have had a mastectomy.

If you have cancer of the womb, you might need a hysterectomy to remove all or part of your womb. There are three main types of hysterectomy operation:

  • Vaginal hysterectomy
  • Laparoscopic hysterectomy
  • Abdominal hysterectomy

The type that you may be advised to have will depend on various factors, from your age to the stage of cancer you have, to your overall health. There are many potential benefits of having a hysterectomy. Some will apply to the majority of women who undergo the procedure, while others will be specific to a certain condition or age range of women. They include:

  • Resolved chronic pelvic pain
  • Resolved abnormal and heavy bleeding
  • The removal of growths and tumours in your reproductive organs
  • Improved fertility
  • A reduction of menstruation and hormone-related mental health issues, for example premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
  • An increased sex drive The prevention of certain cancers, such as cervical cancer

A combination of treatment options is often needed

Cancer is usually always treated with a combination of the options mentioned above.

The specialists looking after you will assess your individual needs and go through your treatment plan in detail with you. This ensures that you have all the information you need to feel informed and safe throughout.

They’ll discuss the benefits and risks of each option, other treatment options if needed, and what you can expect in terms of recovery and outcomes.

Preventative chemotherapy... is a course of treatment to remove any cancer cells that might remain in your body following your main treatment, such as surgery.

What is preventative chemotherapy?

Also known as adjuvant chemotherapy, this is a course of treatment to remove any cancer cells that might remain in your body following your main treatment, such as surgery. It can also include medication and radiotherapy.

The therapy aims to reduce the risk of the original cancer coming back and spreading. This can happen when cancer cells, which are too small to detect with hospital scans and tests, are left behind after surgery. The risk of cancer returning tends to be smaller if the cancer is caught at a very early stage, before it has had a chance to spread, but greater if the disease is found at a later stage or has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Understanding your family history

One risk factor in any type of cancer is family history. Knowing your family history is important. You might share similar genes, or simply habits and environments that could affect your risk of cancer.

Letting your doctor know whether you have a family history of gynaecological cancer can help them decide which diagnostic testing you might need, as well as whether you should have genetic testing.

Many women have a family history of cancer, but not many carry a genetic mutation that increases their risk. Genetic counselling involves speaking with a counsellor to discuss your family history and the types of genetic testing that might be available to you. Having a positive result does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, as other factors such as your environment and lifestyle play a part in your risk.

You can have in-depth counselling with a specialist to navigate the next steps if you do receive a positive test result.

Support groups and resources that can help

A stay in hospital is never easy. However, there are resources out there to provide a helping hand. Joining groups and communities outside of hospital to meet people going through a similar situation and navigating life with a cancer diagnosis.

These groups provide a safe and understanding environment where members can share personal experiences, express emotions, and discuss fears and hopes with others who truly understand what it means to live with cancer.

The collective wisdom within these groups can offer practical advice on managing the disease. Moreover, being part of a support group can significantly reduce feelings of isolation and depression, as members find solidarity and companionship among peers facing similar challenges.

This sense of community fosters a positive outlook, and resilience, and can even lead to improved outcomes by motivating members to stay engaged with their treatment and care.

Additionally, many find that offering support to others in the group enhances their own sense of purpose and well-being. This can create a mutually beneficial environment of empathy and encouragement.

You can contact charity organisations such as Cancer Support UK and Macmillan Cancer Support or use the directories on their websites to find a support group near you.

Supporting your loved one during their treatment

We understand that helping your loved one during a cancer diagnosis can feel daunting.

It usually involves a blend of emotional, practical, and physical support to your loved one. It's valuable to offer a listening ear, allowing them to express their feelings and fears without judgment, and affirming that you're there for them through this challenging time.

Practical support can be just as valuable. This can involve helping with daily tasks, attending medical appointments, and assisting in research of their condition if they need more information.

Encouraging your loved one to lead a healthy lifestyle with proper nutrition and gentle exercise can also be beneficial – and it helps to lead by example. Importantly, respecting their decisions about treatment and care, providing the reassurance of your unwavering support, and reminding them of their strength and resilience can help maintain their spirits.

Remember, it’s also essential to take care of your own wellbeing and seek support for yourself to enable you to be a strong support system for your loved one.

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How do I book an appointment?

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.