September 2011

Help the Hoo-Hahs

Author: Libby Malphrus

September is National Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month. I know for most people, the word “gynecological” is not one that rolls off the tongue easily, nor does it conjure up positive thoughts. For men, it’s that area of medicine that they’d rather not hear much about. For us women, it brings to mind that yearly visit we all dread. Don’t worry. This article won’t make you squirm. But, I do hope it makes you think a little more about the women in your life and their risk for very deadly cancers.

The term gynecological cancer refers to any cancer of the female reproductive area, which includes ovarian, cervical, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Frighteningly, 1 in 20 women will be diagnosed with a GYN cancer in her lifetime. That statistic really hit home for my family in the fall of 2010 when my mother and I were both diagnosed with a GYN cancer within two months of each other.

Mom’s symptoms started out pretty vague. She had significant abdominal bloating and didn’t feel like eating. This got worse, as did the pain in her pelvis. She ended up in the ER on Father’s Day of 2010, and the physicians considered a variety of non-serious issues. Her symptoms didn’t go away, and finally, out of shear frustration, I made an appointment for her to see a specialist at a larger university hospital. Within three days, she was diagnosed with stage III primary peritoneal cancer, which is essentially a “relative” of ovarian cancer and has the same treatment and poor prognosis.

As our family was struggling to recover from her surgery and preparing for the start of chemotherapy, my annually scheduled GYN visit came up. I almost cancelled the appointment because I was overwhelmed with my mom’s medical issues. I had also had 17 years of normal Pap screens and felt like it wasn’t a priority. However, I’ve always been an advocate of preventative medicine, so I kept the appointment. Thank God I did. A week later I got the call that the screen was abnormal, which led to more testing and procedures. The Monday after Thanksgiving, I got the final call: I had invasive cervical cancer.

To say this came as a total shock is an understatement. I was 33 years old, exercised four-five days a week, and felt like I was in the best shape of my life. I knew that women are typically found to have abnormal cells before it ends up as invasive cancer, so how could I have cancer? The answer is that although the Pap test is a great screening tool, it isn’t perfect.

In the end, I had a radical hysterectomy with additional removal of my ovaries. I was fortunate enough to have the surgery through the new DaVinci robotic surgical system, which cut my recovery time from six-eight weeks (with standard open surgery) to four weeks. I’ll admit it was devastating to have the option of having more children taken away and the realization that I would need to be on hormone replacement for many years. I never imagined being so young and facing these choices. However, I am thankful to have one healthy daughter and to be cancer free. Many women aren’t so lucky.

Screening, testing and prevention
You always hear that ovarian cancer is the silent killer. However, it’s really more of a whispering killer, and you need to know what to listen for! The majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV). More than 75% of women will be exposed to HVP in their lifetime, and the types of HPV that cause cancer generally have no outward signs or symptoms. It is crucial for parents to have their daughters vaccinated by their teen years, as the HPV vaccine can prevent the majority of cervical cancer. Additionally, it is so important for all women to have a yearly visit with their gynecologist for a Pap screen. Most cervical cases can be caught early, when treatment is most effective and doesn’t require life-altering surgery or worse.

Lessons learned
My family’s experience left me with an overwhelming sense of responsibility to educate others about the warning signs, screening and prevention available for GYN cancers. I’ve met so many women who admit they don’t get their yearly exams as they should. I think part of the problem is that we as a society don’t really like discussing that area “down there” the same way we do other health issues. Please let my story be a reminder of the importance of that yearly exam. Just a quick appointment once a year can save not only your fertility but also your life! Also, trust your body and know the warning signs. If you feel something is wrong and your symptoms don’t improve, don’t be afraid to get a second or third opinion. Even some physicians can miss the signs of ovarian cancer.

Helping others
Not only is a cancer diagnosis one of the most painful emotional roller coasters you’ll ever experience, it has a tremendous financial burden. I’ve watched as my mom has battled insurance companies, was unable to work from the horrendous side effects of chemotherapy, and faced an ever-mounting stack of medical bills. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have insurance, there are many additional expenses. I’ve created a non-profit organization called Help the Hoo-Hahs, aimed at awareness, prevention and support for all GYN cancers. My hope is that one day we’ll be as comfortable talking about GYN cancers as we are about other types of cancer. After all, we all owe our life to a Hoo-Hah!

Warning Signs of Gynecological Cancer:*

Persistent abdominal bloating
Trouble eating or feeling full after only a small amount of food
Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain
Pain during intercourse or unusual vaginal bleeding *Although these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, it is important to talk to your gynecologist if these symptoms last for two or more weeks

How you can help
5K Walk/Run
September 24, 2011 @ 8 a.m.
Savannah Trade and Convention Center

For more information, to register online, or to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit the “coming events” page of our website, helpthehoohahs.com. You can also check us out on Facebook! All proceeds from this event will stay in our community to help local women battling a GYN cancer.

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