“Congrats. You are officially in menopause.”
If I had any energy at that moment, I might have jumped for joy when my doctor made this pronouncement. But, the long journey through perimenopause left me with nothing but sleep deprivation, weight gain, and a generally grumpy attitude. So I shrugged and asked, “What happens now?”
For most women, entering menopause means not having to worry about certain things any more, like buying tampons or using birth control.
Putting away those signs of being a “woman” can be challenging, but I think by the time we get through the “peri” stage, we are just glad to have one less thing to manage. I know I was. And for the first 18 months or so, I didn’t really think about being menopausal except for all the annoying parts of getting older–I am a little more easily tired, forgetful, and sleepless. Then I had some breakthrough bleeding and my gynecological focus took a turn.
When I first had some bleeding, I immediately did what I assume we all do—Google. I wish I hadn’t. All the initial searching I did pointed immediately to cancer. I knew I had a grandmother who had uterine cancer that was successfully treated, and I had a couple of abnormal pap smears through the years, but I had never entertained the notion of cancer for myself.
In a panic, I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who recommended a uterine biopsy.
While this was a painful procedure, it did rule out pre-cancerous cells while alleviating my immediate panic and fear. After a D&C, my doctor told me that if the bleeding occurred again, we could discuss a hysterectomy.
Fast forward to about a year later and there was another bleeding incident. This led to a decision to just proceed with a full hysterectomy without another biopsy, and a surprising result in my pathology after the surgery. I had precancerous cells, and my decision was absolutely the right one. All of this to say, I’m not offering medical advice, but I am recommending that you pay attention to your body and any changes you notice. If you have any questions or concerns, please see your physician.
Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month
September is Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month. These cancers impact all of the female reproductive system, including the cervix, ovaries, uterus, vagina, and vulva, and all women are at risk for these cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2023 more than 106,000 women in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with a gynecological cancer. More than 32,000 will die from one.
These cancers are stealthy, sneaky killers. Often the symptoms are invisible or similar to other common illnesses or conditions.
According to the CDC, the symptoms of gynecological cancer could be any of the following:
- Unexplained pelvic pain or pressure that doesn’t go away
- Feeling too full too quickly, even when you eat just a little
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, like having longer or heavier periods than what’s normal for you, or bleeding after you’ve gone through menopause
How many of us experience these types of symptoms periodically anyway? That’s all the more reason to be vigilant about your gynecological health. Those pesky tests and exams could mean the difference between diagnosing cancer early and completely missing your opportunity to seek treatment.
Recently a friend of mine passed away after a brief battle with ovarian cancer. From what was shared with me, she had put off addressing some recurring symptoms, pushing through like we all do, and when she finally did seek medical guidance, she only had a few options. These cancers are sneaky thieves. We must pay attention to our own health. We must be advocates for getting the screenings and regular visits we need.
What You Should Know
The only gynecological cancer with a screening test is cervical cancer. As much as it is awkward, the Pap smear is the screening you need to have each year. Now, there are other ways to mitigate risk, but the most important prevention is to know your own body and family history. Pay attention when you have excessive bleeding, bloating, or pain, and see your doctor sooner rather than later.
In September and every month, let’s all make sure to schedule appointments to see our gynecologist for that annual visit we may have been putting off. Let’s ensure that we are doing everything we can to be informed, to be proactive, and to not let gynecological cancers steal us from our families.
For more information, visit the following websites: