Get Comfortable Discussing Women's Health
Updated: Mar 25
I'll start with a disclaimer: COVID-19 is at the top of everyone's mind right now - and with the infection and death rates increasing around the world, it should be. However, when this all passes, please check in with your OBGYN. Please don't ignore your own health after dealing with the immediate pandemic we all are facing.
Social Norms re Breast Cancer versus Cervical Cancer
Breast cancer, the leading cancer for women with more than 3.5 million diagnosed females in the U.S., is a pretty common topic of discussion. There are countless charities raising funds and awareness, like Susan G. Komen Foundation, that have become household names throughout the U.S. and the world, and it's likely that you know someone who has unfortunately died from, or has been diagnosed with, breast cancer. My own mother has been in remission for nearly 12 years from the disease and is a true survivor. My best friend from back home just went through chemo. Her mother went through it. Other friends and their friends' mothers...the list goes on.
The silver lining is that the increased awareness of the disease calls for more conversation, along with more mammograms and breast exams. In a 2018 census, 73% of women 45 and older received a mammogram.
The same lightness of everyday conversation, in my opinion, cannot be applied to cervical cancer. Although approximately 570,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year (the fourth most common cancer in women), it still seems like a taboo topic in society to discuss a cancer that occurs in our female reproductive organs - a matter to be talked about behind closed doors.
Besides the obvious reason of addressing a disease within women's private parts, another reason could be the negative association with Human Papillomavirus (HPV), one of the the leading causes of cervical cancer. However, nearly 80% of men and women who were ever sexually active have HPV. It's incredibly common, and it can take 10-15 years for HPV lesions to grow and develop into precancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix.
Because cervical cancer is a relatively slow-growing cancer, the Office on Women's Health and other health authorities recommend women ages 21-29 getting a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30-65 should get a Pap every three years and an HPV test every five years or a combined test every five years. Doctors also recommend girls ages 9-14 getting the HPV vaccine before they become sexually active.
IMO: if you have annual OBGYN checkups or are doing a post-pregnancy checkup and your doctor offers a Pap test, why not take it? You could be finding out one year earlier that you have precancerous cells and have one more year to get rid of them, whatever method you chose.
IMO: If you are concerned about "how it might look" to get your daughter vaccinated before (you think) she is sexually active, just do it. The decision will likely pay off later in her life. I have talked to several females who did have the vaccine between 2000-2004 when it was still new, and some developed HPV anyway since new strains of the virus mutated. But, the vaccines have made strides over the past two decades.
The main takeaway I'd like to communicate is: know that you are not alone if you have an HPV infection, precancerous lesions or even cancerous cells. Even though you may feel isolated - there are thousands others who have gone through it or are currently going through the same scary process as you. I was enlightened to this fact after I started sharing my story with people in my immediate circles from different stages of my life. It was comforting to know that friends and family had undergone previous LEEP procedures and hysterectomies (not all related to the same thing, but still), with one friend actually doing a similar treatment the same week!
My Ongoing Personal Journey
My precancerous cells were found on a routine follow-up Pap test nine months after my second child was born - the test came back abnormal, but HPV was negative. I just had a test in between children that was completely normal, so being in a monogamous marriage, I didn't think there was any risk of cervical cancer in my future.
My doctor at the time said to get re-tested in six months to one year as the cells needed time to change, if that's what they were doing. We were moving, and my OBGYN recommended a wonderful doctor in San Antonio (email me for details).
So what could it be? My mom told me later that night it could be my body changing after kids. I hoped this was it. I didn’t stop worrying for months. When it was finally time to take the second test, I was extremely nervous. As my fears suspected in the back of my mind, the test was abnormal again. The doctor ordered a colposcopy, which seemed to take forever and was very painful. I couldn't exercise for two weeks after the procedure.
I got the call, and was told to come in for a consultation. More bad news. I was informed the day before my birthday that I had highly evasive dysplasia, which is precancerous cells that could turn into cancer in about five years if left untreated. I had two options: a LEEP procedure that would take the tissue out and eliminate the cells or the extreme option of a hysterectomy, while leaving the ovaries in tact to reduce the effect on hormones. I chose the extreme option after much consideration since we decided we were done having children. It was an easy decision for me - better safe than sorry!
It's now been one week since having the hysterectomy. We are in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, and I feel lucky to have undergone an elective surgery during a time when hospitals around the nation will be getting crowded with novel coronavirus patients (it wasn't too bad in San Antonio at the time).
I was in the hospital just one night, and I'm recovering quickly after the robotic arm procedure - a new technological advancement that makes it possible to be walking around the hospital the same day as the hysterectomy. It will be a long road to full recovery, likely 2-3 months, but I'm lucky we caught these cells early and my surgery didn't reveal any other abnormalities. If you have any questions or would like to share your story on the blog, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay safe at home with your families!!
Note: Thank you to my photographer, Amanda Mercer of Walk the Line Photography, for taking our family's photos back in February prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the surgery. We appreciate you and your talents!