Last weekend, Dutch and I attended our friends’ annual Indianapolis 500 race celebration and Memorial Day cookout. At this party, I met a woman who is a two-time cancer survivor whose family carries one of the genetic markers for breast cancer. She survived breast and uterine cancer and is now battling the after-effects of chemotherapy on her digestive tract.
During our conversation, I discovered this particular cancer survivor was not consistent with undergoing annual preventative exams during much of her adult life.
Preventative care is essential to our health and well-being and can help detect any potential health problems, especially cancer during its earliest stages when it is easier to treat.
Uterine cancer and cervical cancer are mostly asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms that indicate the presence of the cancer. Ovarian cancer is asymptomatic in its early stages and will exhibit symptoms in the later stages of the disease.
Dr. George Papanicolaou (1883-1962) was a Greek pioneer in cytopathology, or the study of cells to determine the cause or nature of disease. He was an expert on early cancer detection who, in 1928, invented the Papanicolaou test after having studied his wife’s cervical cells under a microscope for several months.
His invention, now commonly referred to as a Pap test or Pap smear, is a sample of tissue collected from the neck of a woman’s cervix or uterus that is then examined under a microscope in order to look for potential cancers in the uterus or cervix. Very rarely will a Pap smear detect the presence of ovarian cancer cells.
The Pap test has stood the test of time and is still the standard of care for the detection of cervical and uterine precancers and cancers. Improvements to the Pap test itself now allows for doctors to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia as well using just one swab.
A pelvic exam is used to examine the vulva and the female internal sex organs, which include the Fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vagina and cervix. If there is any hint of abnormality found during a physical pelvic exam, an ultrasound of the suspect area can be performed to gain a better understanding of the abnormality itself.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2012, which is the most recent year for which confirmed data is available, 12,042 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,074 women in the United States died from cervical cancer that year. Roughly one-third of the women diagnosed with cervical cancer succumbed to the disease in 2012, and, according to the American Cancer Society, the same percentage holds true for this year.
Uterine cancer, also known as endometrial cancer, is the sixth most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States. The American Society of Clinical Oncology estimates that 60,050 women in the United States will be diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2016 and that an estimated 10,470 women will die from the disease in the same time frame.
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 22,000 women in the United States were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, and 14,000 women in the United States died from ovarian cancer in the same year. The high incident of deaths among women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is partly due to a lack of early symptoms and to a lack of effective screening tests. Often ovarian cancer is detected in its later stages after the disease has spread to other parts of the body, which makes it more difficult to treat and to survive.
When any cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, the prognosis for the patient is much better. This is why preventative care, in which precancerous cells and potential abnormalities in the sex organs can be detected, is vital to our health and well-being. A Pap test and a pelvic exam are physically uncomfortable for some women and are not without some degree of embarrassment for many women. A few moments of discomfort or embarrassment is worth it for early detection of reproductive cancers.
Transgender individuals who still have female reproductive organs should continue to see a gynecologist for preventative care as well. MyTransHealth is a website designed to assist transgender individuals with finding transgender-friendly medical providers in the United States.
Be safe. Be healthy. Be preventative about reproductive cancers.