A mum of two from Erith has been sharing her harrowing struggle to be correctly diagnosed with vulva cancer.

Clare Baumhauer, 46, says that this is a disease that many people don’t even know exists, let alone dare to speak about.

With September marking Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, Clare is working with Macmillan to encourage women to become more aware of cancers of the vulva, cervix, vagina, ovaries and womb.

Being aware of the symptoms can help women know when they should see their GP.

Clare endured decades of ignorance and awkwardness, as she visited numerous GP’s: “Many male doctors are too embarrassed and uncomfortable to properly investigate the female body. And a lot of medical diagrams don’t even feature the vulva, so it’s no wonder that women don’t know about this form of cancer.

"Many women don’t even know they have a vulva! And many people can’t even bring themselves to use the word – they just know or use the general term vagina. But for us to not talk about this part of our body and to be ashamed of our own bodies, only makes it harder to get a prompt diagnosis.”

Clare said: “Awareness is free and that’s what I am committed to now. To spreading the word and not flinching from speaking about a subject and or body part that can be taboo.

"I want to increase awareness. Because if you have symptoms but are too embarrassed, then you’re going to ignore it and it’s not going to be diagnosed. I have met women who haven’t told their own families that they’ve been diagnosed with vulva cancer because they are too ashamed. They’ve even told loved-one’s that they have some other form of cancer, as it’s easier to speak about breast cancer say.“

Clare had worrying symptoms from an early age: “As a young child and then a teenager, I often experienced itching and soreness around my vulva, but every GP I went to see would tell me that it was cystitis and not even examine me. They were male GP’s and it was embarrassing to talk to them, but they also seemed to be embarrassed to investigate properly too.

“Even though I continued to experience symptoms, I didn’t bother going to see the GP again until my early 20’s. I didn’t even know what a vulva was, let alone that you could get cancer of the vulva. I ignored the symptoms and discomfort as every visit to the GP’s left me frustrated and none the wiser.

“So, I stopped trying to get to the bottom of the problem. I decided that perhaps every woman feels these symptoms, but just don’t talk about it. I learned to live with it.

“And then in my 30’s, it started to get worse. I saw a female GP who at least examined me but again I was fobbed off, with a diagnosis of thrush. However, I then experienced a tear in my vulva, similar to what a woman might experience in childbirth.

"At first, I ignored it, thinking that it would heal itself, but it only worsened. It hurt when I wiped myself down there. The tear had changed and become an ulcer. But I thought “what’s the point of going to the GP” – I was so frustrated by all the other times that I hadn’t been helped.

“Then the ulcer grew to about the size of a 50p – it was an open ulcer and sore, so I had to go back. I could no longer ignore the symptoms. Initially another female GP said it was herpes, but my shocked expression made her have a second look (I had been with my husband for 25 years!) and she subsequently decided that it might be vulva cancer and referred me.

“It was only then that I was finally diagnosed with stage 1 vulva cancer. Unfortunately, 6months after radical, life-changing surgery and 25 sessions of radiotherapy, the cancer was found to have spread and I was subsequently diagnosed with stage 3 vulva cancer.

"If I hadn’t been persistent and gone back to the GP, I would be dead.

“I must have gone to numerous GP’s at least 30 times over the years. I had also been seen by various other medical professionals – gynaecological nurses, practice nurses and midwives, but no one had spotted that there was something wrong, despite my vulva displaying classic symptoms.

"I’d had 8 smear tests and had 2 children during that time, but no one picked-up on it or referred me for further investigation.

“I have also found out that I had been affected by lichen sclerosus in childhood, which wasn’t diagnosed for 30-years. If left untreated, lichen sclerosus can lead to vulva cancer in 5% of women.”

Sue Green, Senior Information Development Nurse at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “The earlier gynaecological cancers are found, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. You are not wasting your doctor’s time by getting your symptoms checked.”

Symptoms of gynaecological cancers include:

• A lump or sore on your vulva or vagina, or in your groin

• A swelling or lump in your groin (where your leg joins to your body)

• Other vulva changes – including itching, burning or soreness

• Unusual vaginal discharge – including watery, blood-stained or smelly discharge

• Heavier or more painful periods than usual

• Bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause

• Pain when peeing, needing to pee often, or blood in your pee

• Pain in the vulval area or pelvic area

• Thickened, raised, red, white or dark patches on the skin of the vulva

• A long-lasting bloated feeling in your tummy (having a swollen tummy)

• Feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite

• Pain or discomfort in the lower tummy area and/or back

To help Macmillan Cancer Support to be there for people like Clare, sign-up to host a World’s Biggest Coffee Morning for Macmillan on September 27. Sign-up at coffeeregister.macmillan.org.uk