COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gynecologic cancers affect over 80,000 women a year in the United States, yet these diseases are rarely discussed, even among women themselves. This makes these cancers all the more frightening for a woman who has just been diagnosed.
Jeffrey M. Fowler, M.D.
Gynecologic cancers include cancers of the ovaries, uterus and cervix, and rare cancers of the fallopian tubes, vulva and vagina. All are deeply emotional, deeply personal, and often affect a woman’s sense of self.
Last year, a small group of gynecologic cancer survivors set out to help ease the fear and uncertainty of these malignancies. Working with Dr. Jeffrey Fowler, director of gynecologic oncology at The Ohio State University Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, the women started Patient-to-Patient, a program that connects women newly diagnosed with gynecologic cancer with a survivor treated for the same disease.
“Gynecologic cancers can be overwhelming,” Fowler says, “and newly diagnosed patients find this personal attention very helpful. Learning what to expect from someone who has been through it, and who is now helping others, eases patients’ fears and gives them hope.”
The program also enables the volunteers to use their cancer experience to help others.
“Women who are newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer are often terrified,” says Jan Maden, a survivor of both breast and ovarian cancer, and one of the women who helped start the group.
“They know that the diagnosis is not considered good most of the time, and they want to know about the treatment – what happens, whether one drug is better than another and what side effects to expect.”
Hair loss is a frequent concern. Maden has lost hers four times. “It’s always hard,” she says. “When you’re bald, people know you have cancer.” Wearing a wig can help, but even then, she says, “other women sense that the wig isn’t being worn for fashion.”
Patient-to-Patient works informally, mainly by phone. Fowler and his office match a newly diagnosed patient with a woman who has survived the same disease and received the same or a similar treatment. The volunteer makes the first call.
“Talking by phone is less threatening than meeting face-to-face,” says Terry Dutton, an ovarian cancer survivor and a volunteer with the program, “and it allows us to help patients who live out of town.”
Volunteers also talk with family members, Fowler says. “Family and friends want to help the patient, but they aren’t sure how. The women in this buddy system can help get family and friends involved.”
Gynecologic cancers that are caught early are often curable. This is particularly true for cervical cancer, which is detectable early with regular Pap tests, and endometrial cancer. Signs of endometrial cancer include any vaginal bleeding after menopause, or irregular vaginal bleeding before menopause.
Ovarian cancer is the most common and most serious gynecologic malignancy. Its symptoms are often vague, making early detection difficult. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include bloating and discomfort in the pelvic area, tiredness and changes in bowel and bladder patterns that are progressive.
A family history of ovarian and breast cancer is an important risk factor for ovarian cancer. Knowing one’s medical family history and getting a genetic test, when appropriate, can reveal whether one has an increased risk of these diseases and lead to early detection.
September is national Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.
Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute is one of the nation’s leading centers for research on the prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The OSU CCC – James encompasses six interdisciplinary research programs and includes more than 200 investigators who generate over $100 million annually in external funding. It is a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and OSU’s James Cancer Hospital is consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s best cancer hospitals.# # #
Darrell E. Ward
Medical Center Communications