As women of 2014, we have grown up shrugging off things: backhanded comments, broken hearts, and bodily changes, to name a few.
So this past year, on the drive home from a family vacation, when Molly took a bathroom break and noticed a small spot of red on her toilet paper, she tried to shrug it off. Sure, at 63 years old, she hadn’t had a menstrual cycle in five years, but maybe she wiped too hard. Maybe she was dry “down there.” Maybe she had a bladder infection. Excuses to just forget about it abounded—but less so an hour later when she found another drop of blood.
From her phone, she Facebook messaged a mutual friend and me, saying “Hey look, I am scared, what is this?” We both replied, “You need to go to the gynecologist.”
While vaginal bleeding can be caused by a lot of things, especially in perimenopause and menopause (vaginal dryness, anyone?), it’s also a common sign of uterine cancer, which Molly was about to find out she had. More than 40,000 women are diagnosed with uterine cancer each year, according to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer.
Luckily, Molly called her gynecologist right then and there and made an appointment for the next day. He performed a Pap, spotted a small polyp, and removed it to have it screened. He also scheduled Molly for an immediate ultrasound (another patient had just canceled—lucky her!). A week later, she received the results: “You do have cancer,” her gynecologist said. “You are going to have to have a hysterectomy.”
“I was not prepared. It was as if this entire thing happened to somebody else,” Molly says. “The experience of being healthy one day and having cancer the next is so bizarre. It felt almost as if it were a bad dream.” Molly learned hers was an estrogen-related cancer, meaning that a surplus of unopposed estrogen in her body helped to coax along the cancer’s growth.
The hysterectomy happened as quickly as had everything leading up to it. Molly spent one night in the hospital—and she remembers more about an obnoxious lady down the hospital hall than the procedure itself. Still, like most women, she wanted to start new and be back on her feet rearing to go just days following the surgery. Who did she think she was supposed to be, Wonder Woman? Luckily, her daughter was there to help bring her back down to Earth and set realistic goals, while the growing sisterhood of cancer and hysterectomy survivors were there to provide her solace. In fact, one third of all American women will eventually have their uterus removed and half a million women in the U.S. have a hysterectomy each year, according to Lauren Streicher, MD, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and author of The Essential Guide to Hysterectomy: Advice from a Gynecologist on Your Choices Before, During, and After Surgery. For instance, the Cancer Support Community offers phone, online, and in-person support for women battling cancer. This New Year, established social circles, religious groups, and health communities can prove instrumental in getting women back on their 2014 feet—both physically and emotionally—following cancer. While cancer is scary and hysterectomies are anything but fun, surviving both is about more than living to see another day—it’s about loving each and every day for the gift it is.
Now, post-recovery, Molly is confident her cancer—or as she calls it, her “bad dream”—is behind her this New Year. Of course, she still has follow-up appointments with her gynecologist (every three months, then every six, then every year for five years), but as her gynecologist told her, “You have a greater chance of falling out of bed in the hospital and breaking your leg than you do of having this cancer be a life-threatening event.” Thanks to early detection, she didn’t need radiation or chemo to combat the disease. While there is not currently any 2014 routine screening tests for uterine cancer, abnormal vaginal bleeding typically spurs early, life-saving detection in women like Molly, according to the Foundation for Women’s Cancer. Here are some helpful tips from Dr. Streicher on how to decrease the risk of uterine cancer in the New Year.
Like so many things in our 2014 lives, the key to success is knowledge. The power of the sisterhood knows no bounds—as long as we never stop talking! So let’s stop shrugging off our health this New Year and give our bodies the voice they deserve!
Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN!