Women need to be more aware of changes to their menstrual cycle that could be early signs of leukaemia, says a leading blood cancer charity.
The average woman may get her first period when she’s around 12 years old, but many still experience feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness when discussing their menstrual cycle, even with medical professionals.
However, the ongoing taboo around periods, plus the lack of awareness of what constitutes “normal” bleeding could be masking the signs of blood cancer in young women, according to leading cancer charity Leukaemia Care.
“Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. When the white blood cells multiply abnormally, they take over the bone marrow and displace the cells that make the red blood cells,” explains Fiona Heath, nurse advisor to Leukaemia Care.
“Platelets also become displaced, and platelets are the cells that help the blood to clot. Therefore, this can cause women to experience heavy periods as their platelet levels may be low.”
Although they are common, and there are many causes, some heavy periods could be a sign of blood cancer. While general symptoms of leukaemia include persistent chronic fatigue, infections and bleeding or bruising, there are also symptoms that are specific to individuals who menstruate. These can include changes to the menstrual cycle, such as abnormal uterine bleeding and uncharacteristic bleeds midway through a cycle.
But because of the lack of research and knowledge surrounding the relationship between menstruation and blood cancer, these symptoms often go unreported, or unnoticed altogether.
A study of 2,095 premenopausal women with blood cancer showed that while 205 participants experienced abnormal bleeding, just 19 of them reported it as the symptom that led to them seeking their blood cancer diagnosis.
Indeed, wider research has found that women prioritise uterine and vaginal health lower than most other health issues, ignoring significant changes – with potentially dangerous consequences.
Georgina was diagnosed with leukaemia at just 19 years old after noticing changes in the amount she was bleeding during her cycle. “I was told on my arrival in hospital that it was almost certainly nothing serious – most likely post-viral fatigue or a cumulation of my very heavy periods that led to my current anaemic state. I didn’t consider any kind of sinister underlying condition at that time,” she says.
Sarah, 38, also experienced abnormal bleeding and describes her periods as so heavy she thought she was “having a miscarriage”. “I went to see my GP three times over a six week period, but that was mainly to do with my heavy periods and some painful haemorrhoids (which I’ve since learned is a lesser known symptom of leukaemia),” she explains.
“Although I mentioned my other symptoms at my appointments, it wasn’t until my periods got so bad that I couldn’t leave the house that I insisted on a blood test. I had a blood test on the Monday morning and received a call that night from an out-of-hours doctor asking me to go to the hospital right away.”
Worryingly, the number of stories like this are increasing. From Leukaemia Care’s preliminary surveys, 56% of women said they don’t think they would have noticed changes to their menstrual cycle in the lead up to their diagnosis.
As such, Leukaemia Care believes that further investment is needed to raise awareness of and conduct additional research into these symptoms.
“We want every individual to know their normal and to get abnormal bleeding checked,” the charity told Stylist. It hopes to encourage conversations about menstruation and equip individuals who menstruate with the information they need to recognise changes and know when they should see a GP.
Leukaemia Care is teaming up with charities Eve Appeal and Bloody Good Period for Blood Cancer Awareness month in September, and hosting the webinar When It’s Not Just A Bloody Period: Abnormal Bleeding and Cancer.
“The Eve Appeal raises awareness of the five gynaecological cancers (womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal) and abnormal vaginal bleeding is a key sign of three of the five gynae cancers – womb, cervical and vaginal,” it explained. “We know that these cancers aren’t discussed enough, let alone their symptoms, but what is even more unknown is that abnormal vaginal bleeding isn’t just a sign of gynae cancer – it can also be a sign of leukaemia.
We’re really thrilled to be collaborating on this panel event with two other charities that know exactly what it’s like to deal with subject matters that are often surrounded by stigma and can be difficult for people to talk about.”
Images: Stylist/Leukaemia Care