Women’s Cancers: Still Invisible

Earlier this year I shared with you the story of my mother-in-law Helen who, after many months of stomach upset, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because she went so long without a diagnosis, despite complaining of vague symtoms for more than six months, her options are few. At 86 she had surgery, but once they saw how extensive the tumors were, they simply closed her up and told her there was nothing they could do except send her to chemo. She chose not to put herself through chemo. Now she is not doing well and we continue to see her decline. It breaks my heart.

There are a handful of gynecological cancers women need to be concerned with: cervical, ovarian, uterine and others. Name a woman’s reproductive body part, and there’s a threat of cancer associated with it. The problem is that almost all of them are advanced before they are diagnosed. Granted, the symptoms can be vague. In my mother-in-law’s case, she had what she — and her doctor — thought were gastro-related problems. Except that upper GIs, lower GIs and other tests found nothing.

However! (and this is a big however) WHEN the doctor thinks to test for these female cancers, they don’t have to be so difficult to diagnose. In the case of my mother-in-law’s ovarian cancer, a blood test would have indicated what they needed to know. I’m not familiar enough with the others, but I’ve already alluded to the biggest problem: “WHEN the doctor thinks to test” for them.

And that’s the real crux of the problem. Gynecologists may be more inclined to check a woman for these kinds of cancers — but with only vague symptoms, it’s often NOT a gyn a woman visits when she has problems. GPs, internists, sometimes gastroenterologists — they rarely think to test a woman for female reproductive cancers because they know so little about them.

I share all this — and bring you a ray of hope. Last week I heard from Nancy Keelan, a former gynecological cancer patient herself. Despite a 25-year career as a registered nurse, despite suffering for years with very specific symptoms for endometrial cancer, Nancy’s gyn never did diagnose her correctly. Eventually she found herself hospitalized, and another doctor diagnosed her. After treatment for her cancer, Nancy is in remission and now crusades to enlighten other women, and the people who love them, to these invisible cancers. But she lives with the possibility of returning cancer every day, not unlike Elizabeth Edwards.

Nancy lives in New Rochelle, NY and speaks to groups throughout the NYC metro region. If you are a meeting planner, or a human resources manager, or are looking for a speaker who will have a huge influence on your group, I know Nancy would love to help out. If you contact me (blog@everypatientsadvocate.com) I’ll be happy to put you in touch with Nancy. (She doesn’t have a website or I’d just link you.)

No matter where you live (even if you can’t invite Nancy to address your group) — please take this blog post as a warning. If you or a woman in your life begins to complain of vague symptoms, and they are located anywhere within her torso or between her hips, find a gynecologist who will test her for any of the female cancers.

And don’t delay. This is life-saving advice no one can afford to ignore.

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Trisha Torrey
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