The one red flag women should never ignore when it comes to their health

by | The Third Act, Women's Health

Dr Thinn Thinn Khine

Consultant Endocrinologist/Geriatrician

We’re well versed when it comes to the importance of checking our breasts for lumps. If we notice any changes to freckles or moles, most of us know to head straight to the doctor. But how do you react when you have a change in your menstrual cycle? If you’re like most women, the answer is probably, “not a lot”.

Periods are by their nature subject to change, so, it’s no surprise that many of us don’t think too much of it if the duration or intensity of our cycle fluctuates. “I’ve had patients in their 20s and 30s who have gone two or three years without a period and haven’t thought anything of it or have sought medical attention” says endocrinologist Dr Thinn Thinn Khine. “When I ask them what they thought might be happening they shrug it off, sometimes they think maybe they’re having early menopause. But it still didn’t occur to them that this is a significant change for their health”.

My period has changed, should I see a GP?

And while we’ll all experience cycle shifts throughout our lifetime, there’s a very clear misunderstanding that changes are totally normal and not worthy of a GP consult. Unfortunately, when we are first educated about our bodies and reproductive health as young women, our period is rarely pitched as a marker of our physical health.

“Our period is an indicator of our overall health – both physical and emotional,” says Dr Khine. “When we’re stressed or under prolonged pressure at work and/or family commitments, people can lose a healthy sleep cycle and a balanced lifestyle. Then the timing and amount of period can often fluctuate. Sometimes, one or a few period/menstrual cycles can be missed”.

While the reason for a variation can vary greatly, it’s always best to make sure you check in with your GP when there is a significant change in the period/menstrual cycle. “Sure, it could be part of a natural process such as menopause and perimenopausal symptoms or it could be something else. Either way, your healthcare professional could help you if it makes sense,” says Dr Khine.

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Aside from being linked to hormonal changes at perimenopause, there are other, more concerning issues that a change in your period may indicate. “I can’t emphasise enough the risk of malignancy or cancer, particularly ovarian cancer because most people don’t go through ultrasound of their uterus or ovary routinely. Currently, there’s no standardised screening or guidelines for ovarian cancer” says Dr Khine. “Getting screened for malignancies related to female reproductive organs such as cervical cancer is important. I’ve seen young and middle-aged patients with ovarian cancer and by the time the diagnosis is made, the cancer has already spread.”

So, what constitutes a change? Anything that seems outside of what you’d consider your natural cycle. The heaviness of your period, the number of days you bleed, the length of time between periods and any not-normal-for-you you should flag with the medical professional. 

“Any sudden changes in your weight are worth checking out too,” says Dr Khine. “The main thing is to make sure you see your doctor early. Ovarian cancer is called the ‘silent killer’ because by the time it’s detected, it’s often too late. It’s better to be overzealous and get checked out, than the alternative.”