October is breast cancer awareness month. I think that’s great because it’s probably the female cancer women worry about the most. I had a grandmother and an aunt die from the disease so it’s one I’ve always been concerned about.
I’m also old enough to remember that when I was a child, you didn’t say the word “breast” in mixed company – if at all. It was talked about only in hushed tones and in secret. You might hear women talk about it quietly when they thought little ears weren’t listening, but it wasn’t out in the open like it is now. There were no pink ribbons or walk-a-thons.
Now, things are different – which is a good thing. In my opinion, it’s always better to de-stigmatize something and get out in the open where it can be talked about and support provided, than to continue hiding things behind a veil of shame or embarrassment.
But, breast cancer is not the only female cancer we should be worried about. It’s just the one with the most press.
Ovarian, uterine, cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers (collectively referred to as the gynecological cancers) don’t get anywhere near the attention that breast cancer does. And while the money poured into breast cancer research has upped the survival rate for women diagnosed in the early stages to almost 99% at the 5-year mark, 98,000 women are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer each year. Their survival rate is much lower.
Difficulty in diagnosing gynecologic cancers
Because these cancers are harder to detect, they spread more quickly and kill more of the affected women. Only 68% of women diagnosed with cervical cancer and less than 50% with ovarian cancer will survive to the 5-year mark.
Located deeper in the body, they’re harder to locate. That makes sense, of course. Unlike self breast exams, you can’t feel your cervix. You can’t press on your midsection and feel if there is a small tumor in your ovaries or uterus. You won’t know if cancer cells have broken free and are floating around in your abdomen.
It’s also easy for symptoms of these cancers to be explained away or attributed to other causes. Neither is there a screening tool for some of these cancers – at least not one that is routinely used. There is nothing comparable to a mammogram that will help doctors find tumors in the earliest stages. Often, by the time a woman is experiencing any symptoms, the cancer has already spread.
The news in this area is not good. 70% of ovarian cancers have already reached Stage 3 or Stage 4 before they’re diagnosed. At that point, the 5-year survival rate is about 17%.
Your doctor can, of course, send you for a sonogram or order some other test. But this will most likely only be done once your doctor suspects that there is a problem. That means that YOU have to be aware of what’s going on with your body and alert your doctor to any changes.
Symptoms you shouldn’t ignore
So what symptoms should a woman be on the lookout for? Abdominal pain, bloating, and abnormally heavy periods. Additionally, women who have already gone through menopause should alert their doctor to any bleeding, no matter how light.
That is how my cancer was found.
I’d had a few episodes of light bleeding, but I would always tell myself that I’d wait and watch to see if it happened again. I thought maybe the bleeding was due to a hemorrhoid, but that if it persisted, I’d call the doctor. Of course, the bleeding would just happen every now and then, and it was easy to attribute it to some imaginary hemorrhoid. Cancer is much scarier to think about.
But not too long after my mother passed away (from cancer, I might add), I decided to schedule a doctor’s appointment for myself. I hadn’t been to the doctor in several years. I seldom get sick enough to see the doctor and I’d just let it slide. However, since mother had just passed away, I figured the time had come to drag myself to the doctor whether I wanted to or not (and I didn’t want to).
The visit was routine. But for some reason, at the last minute I decided that maybe I ought to mention the fact that I’d had several episodes of some bleeding. “It’s really no big deal,” I remember telling the doctor. “Nothing heavy. And it always is just a couple of drops and then it goes away.”
My doctor just looked at me with that look that says, “You shouldn’t ignore stuff like that.”
The upshot is that my doctor ordered some tests and all of the sudden, I was seeing another doctor, and then another, and then being scheduled for a complete hysterectomy (I’ll tell that story next week).
What needs to happen
A key to the improvement in breast cancer survival rates appears to be the amount of money poured into research. in 2014, the National Institutes of Health approved $682 million for breast cancer research compared with $131 million for ovarian cancer. Cervical and uterine cancers received even less.
A cancer vaccine
Interestingly enough, there is one cancer that does have a vaccine.
By age 39, over 50% of American women have likely been infected with one of the nine strains of HPV that are the most likely to cause warts or cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is recommended by the CDC to be given to both boys and girls around the age of 11 or 12.
Some parents have refused to have their children given this vaccine though, because they worry that it will cause their children to become sexually active. While parents definitely have the right to decide this issue for themselves, I will say this: I chose to vaccinate my daughter at that age and she wasn’t even aware what the vaccine was for. All she really knew was that she had to get a shot. It certainly didn’t cause an 11-year old to run out and start having sex. I also knew that I never wanted to look her in the eye and say, “Yes, I knew that vaccine could protect you, but I valued your virginity more than your life.” But to each his own.
The bottom line
Should you get a dreaded diagnosis, find yourself a gynecologic oncologist. You may have to look around to find one and you may have to travel a bit outside your home area. There aren’t enough of these specialists being trained so you’ll likely only find them in larger cities. Less than 60% of patients don’t see a doctor who specializes in these cancers and that’s unfortunate. I was lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area when my cancer was found and I was referred to an outstanding doctor. I cannot credit her enough – she was outstanding. You can use this site www.foundationforwomenscancer.org to locate a specialist closest to you.
Please don’t think this is about pitting breast cancer against other female cancers. That’s not the point at all. But as women, we need to be aware of the various health risks we have so that we can monitor our own health and inform our doctors when something isn’t right.
I would have liked to have known my grandmother. I also know that my aunt wanted to live long enough to see her own grandbabies. And I’m grateful that my cancer was caught before it spread. It would be wonderful to read a report stating that ALL female cancers are decreasing and that women are living longer, healthier lives. That, my friends, is the point.
Resources and References:
You might also be interested in Mammograms, Ultrasounds and Taking Control of Your Health.