It’s my favorite question to ask. “How many women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in the United States?”
I ask it almost weekly to a medical student or a resident. I’m not sure why or when it became my favorite question to ask. Maybe because the answer keeps being the same. Maybe because it launches me into one of my favorite lectures about how we have failed to eradicate an almost absolutely preventable disease. Probably because I don’t think I will reduce these cancers so much as will my students and residents as they become advocates in their practices and communities for gynecology cancer awareness and prevention.
September is Gynecologic Cancer Awareness month. Thousands and thousands of women will be affected with gynecologic cancer each year. Many of them don’t know the signs and symptoms of Gyn cancer, they don’t have access to screening for these cancers or they aren’t aware that they are at risk. A few facts you should know about Gynecologic Cancers.
- A woman can be affected with cancer of the ovary, uterus, cervix, vagina or vulva
- Cancer in each of these organs can occur as different types and those different types of cancer may have different risk factors
- As women age their risk for gynecologic cancer increases.
- About 45,000 women will be diagnosed with uterine cancer, 20,000 with ovarian cancer, almost 12,000 with cervical cancer, and about 6,000 with vaginal or vulvar cancer.
- Many if not most cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers can be prevented by vaccinating young men and women against HPV.
- Uterine cancer is associated with obesity and excess estrogen. Abnormal bleeding is the most common symptom.
- Most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed at a late stage due to the lack of a reliable screening test and its vague symptoms.
- The later stage the gynecologic cancer is diagnosed the more likely the woman is to die from her disease.
Most of my clinical work with cancer centers around the prevention of lower genital tract disease. Cervical, vaginal and vulvar dysplasia and cancer. I started working in this area in residency and was given opportunities by mentors and colleagues to build my knowledge and skills for patient care, research and education in this area. But about half of my research focuses on the early detection and prevention of ovarian cancer. The picture above is my cousin Tara. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. I remember my mom telling me that she had ovarian cancer and thinking about how impossible that seemed. She was younger than I was and very healthy. Tara has persevered through a massive surgery, intense chemotherapy and more surgery in addition to countless scans, doctors appointments and other medications. Tara is the reason I love collaborating with my research partners to try and better understand how to reduce that number of ovarian cancer patients from 20,000 annually to as close to zero as possible.
So here’s the advice. The “to do list” if you will.
Get an HPV immunization: If you are between the ages of 11 and 26, if you know or love someone between the ages of 11 and 26, if you are the parent of someone between the ages of 11 and 26 then you need to know about and advocate for HPV vaccination. It’s the best way for us to reduce or eliminate those 11,900 cases of cervical cancer. Plus if you don’t do anything my favorite question will never have a different answer and then how will I stump my medical students. It’s safe. It’s effective. You can read more about HPV vaccination here.
Know your family history. Some ovarian and uterine cancers are genetic in nature. My family loves to share this kind of information. My mom’s favorite kind of text: “Did you know so and so was in the hospital for such and such?” This is usually followed by me asking who she is talking about and how they are related to me. If this isn’t your family start asking questions. Talk to your doctor about the cancers that have affected the men and women in your family and they can talk to you about genetic testing. You can read more here.
Take care of yourself. See your doctor for regular and preventative healthcare. It’s no fun going to the gynecologist. I mean even I don’t love going. But, it’s worth it. First of all, OBGYNs are awesome. Secondly, we can’t diagnose things we don’t see you for. Besides seeing your doctor, exercise most days of the week, eat your veggies, don’t smoke.
Most importantly, take care of others.
Tara has established a non-profit organization to support others diagnosed with cancer. You can find out more about over at Tenaciously Teal. Tara is a huge advocate for cancer prevention, screening and early diagnosis. As a physician I am called to improve the health of my patients. As a Christian I am called to care for the poor, the widow, the sojourner. I can’t do it without you. Many women I see don’t have access to healthcare. They don’t have insurance, they live far from a healthcare facility, they don’t have transportation or childcare. Be a voice for those who don’t have one. Take action for someone who doesn’t have the courage. It will take all of us to make a difference.