We all have that person at work who makes the day more enjoyable. At my old office, that person was Iwona. She was more like a sister to me than a coworker, so when she texted me during a meeting to say, “It’s cancer,” I lost my breath and left the room to call her.
Iwona was supposed to be in surgery that day to remove a large fibroid, which her doctors believed was causing the painful, heavy periods and abnormal bleeding she was experiencing. But while she was getting prepped for surgery, the news came: She had stage 4 uterine cancer. She was only 44.
Iwona was a strong woman — made even stronger by her support system, which consisted of her husband, 17-year-old daughter, and extensive network of friends. She was ready to fight, and so were we.
Her doctors immediately scheduled her for a complete hysterectomy, and then they started her on chemotherapy. I went with her often, and I remember how her energy and attitude filled me with hope. Yes, she had cancer, but she was going to beat it. And once she finished about eight months’ worth of chemo, it seemed she had.
We could only celebrate for about a year — that’s when she started feeling unwell again. Her doctors soon found the cancer had spread to her stomach and lungs. She needed more surgery and more chemo. This round was harder, and Iwona stopped reaching out and responding to my texts and phone calls. She didn’t want her loved ones to see her so sick, and she didn’t change her mind until the end when she was in intensive care at the hospital. Iwona didn’t look like herself, but she acted like it, being the friend first and asking me all about my family. When it was time for me to leave, she told me she loved me. I didn’t want to say goodbye, so I told her I’d see her tomorrow.
Losing Iwona was painful, and so is the anniversary of her death each year. But I’m hopeful that by sharing her story, I can help educate other women about gynecologic cancers so that they don’t have to suffer like my friend.
Gynecologic cancers start in women’s reproductive organs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that there are five main types:
- Cervical cancer, which is most often caused by human papillomavirus (HPV);
- Ovarian cancer, which causes more deaths each year than any other gynecologic cancer in the United States;
- Uterine cancer, the most commonly diagnosed gynecologic cancer in the United States; and
- Vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer, which are very rare, and together, account for only 6% to 7% of all gynecologic cancers diagnosed in the United States.
Each year, about 89,000 women are diagnosed with and more than 29,000 die from gynecologic cancers, according to CDC. Treatment is most effective when these cancers are found early. However, cervical cancer is the only one on this list with a preventive screening test — the Pap test, which checks your cervix for abnormal cell changes that, if not found and treated, can lead to cervical cancer. (If you’re 21 or older, you’re probably familiar with it.) There’s also the HPV test, which looks for HPV infection that can cause those abnormal cell changes. These tests can even work together. For instance, if you have an abnormal Pap test, the HPV test can help determine if HPV caused the abnormal cells on your cervix or if your doctor needs to look for something else. How often you need these tests depends on your age and health history, so make sure you talk to your doctor or nurse about what’s right for you. Also, ask about the HPV vaccine. It can help prevent HPV infections that can cause cervical cancer as well as vaginal and vulvar cancers. The vaccine is recommended for women 26 and younger.
Even though the Pap test screens only for cervical cancer and there aren’t screening tests for the other gynecologic cancers, there are steps we can take to help protect ourselves or find these cancers early. You can start by learning the symptoms of gynecologic cancers. Remember to pay attention to your body and know what’s normal for you. If something changes or doesn’t feel right, speak up. Symptoms can be subtle and can include any unusual bleeding or discharge, stomach or back pain, bloating, and feeling full too quickly. Learn to recognize each cancer’s symptoms, and use CDC’s symptoms diary to track any symptoms you notice. If you are experiencing any symptoms on this list — or any other symptoms that are unusual for you — talk to your doctor or nurse. You’re the expert on your body, so don’t let yourself or anyone else dismiss your symptoms.
Another way to help lower your chance of getting gynecologic cancer is to learn your family health history. Find out about cancers and other serious illnesses that have been in your family, then talk about it with your doctor or nurse. That information can help you decide about screening tests, symptoms to look out for, and preventive measures you might want to take.
And of course, making healthy lifestyle choices whenever possible will help set your body up to be as strong as possible. Eat healthy foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables; quit smoking if you smoke; maintain a healthy weight; and get regular exercise. If you need a little nudge in the right direction, we have information to help you get started.
The fact is that some things are out of our control. And Iwona’s illness was a painful reminder that anyone — family, friends, even coworkers who are like sisters — can be affected by gynecologic cancer. Our best defense is to pay attention to our bodies, learn our family histories, take good care of ourselves, and get regular checkups. I miss my friend every day, and I hope that by sharing her story, fewer women will have to go through what she went through. Please share this with your friends and family — maybe even your favorite coworker.