When my periods started increasing in pain, I could have chalked it up to my long history with endometriosis, a condition that rarely transforms into malignancy. Instead, I heeded the advice of a dear colleague, who told me to do what I tell my patients to do—I investigated it. It turned out to be stage-two ovarian cancer.
That was just over five years ago. Today, I am completely healthy.
The common misconception around cancer is that cancer equals death. That is simply fear rearing its ugly head. While we fear dying from these diseases, the truth is that people receive cancer diagnoses daily, and the majority will survive—especially if the cancer is found early.
Ovarian cancer is often referred to as a silent killer because most diagnoses happen after the cancer has developed into advanced stages, not because the cancer is more aggressive than others. It’s not necessarily silent; it’s subtle. As women, it’s important that we pay attention to our bodies, listen when things don’t feel right and advocate for ourselves.
Ladies, if it’s been a while since your last OB-GYN appointment, it’s time to make one. Now. There’s no better time to do so than in September, otherwise known as Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.
Ovarian cancer is only one kind of gynecologic cancer. Others include cervical cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer.
Screenings, such as the Pap test (which looks for cervical cancer or precancerous cells), are intended to discover potential health issues in women who don’t have any symptoms. That’s a large reason why it’s so important that you keep your annual gynecologic appointments. And since we have no screening for ovarian cancer, vigilance about our symptoms is our only option.
The fear that something detected is cancer—or that an abnormal test automatically means cancer—can lead to stress and avoidance of annual doctor visits and routine screenings. Yet, both doctor and patient feel better with issues we can find and fix. If a test does indicate cancer, but we catch it early, the likelihood of you being okay increases dramatically. Early detection can mean the difference between experiencing difficulties during treatment versus fearing for survival.
Do you often avoid your annual appointment because you feel fine? That’s exactly when you should go, rather than waiting for a crisis to unfold. Regular exams and screenings build a trusted relationship with your health care provider. It lets us get to know you—and your body. When you’re healthy, you can develop a meaningful relationship with your doctor. Knowledge is shared and trust is established. This collaborative relationship invites two-way conversations that encourage proactivity when possible and calm reactivity when required.
A recent survey by the Prevent Cancer Foundation® found that nearly a quarter (24%) of women and people assigned female at birth ages 40 to 60 say it’s been more than 36 months since their last appointment with their OB-GYN or primary care provider. Three years? We need to change that. Three years of an undetected cancer growing inside you can make a difference in your overall health and treatment options if an issue is identified. This is true for all people, no matter how you identify. Take care of yourself and book that appointment you have been putting off.
The same survey found that while 90% of women say they are returning to normal life activities like visiting family and friends, dining and shopping, less than half are returning to their doctors’ offices.
As health care providers, we cannot help you optimize and protect your health if we don’t see you. Your health must be your priority.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not downplaying cancer or how much it sucks. Cancer is real, and treatment is tough. But when the information we have about it increases, our anxiety about it decreases.
The issues we can find and fix, we should. Let’s remind ourselves that cancer does not equal death. The way we can do better is to get the screening tests that are available to us so we can find issues early, like Pap tests, mammograms and colonoscopies. And educate yourself on the symptoms of ovarian cancer, since no routine screening test exists for it yet.
Early detection saved my life. And it could save yours, too. Be proactive, not paranoid, about your health. Get to know your body. Give your doctor a call and get your cancer screenings back on the books.
About the Author
Dr. Shieva Ghofrany is board certified in obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN). She has been in private practice since 2003 at Coastal Obstetrics & Gynecology in Stamford, Connecticut, and serves as head Global Clinical Implementation for Aspira Women’s Health. Dr. Ghofrany has been named to the Castles-Connolly Top Docs list, and featured in various media, including Huffington Post, Parents Magazine and Cosmopolitan, and has videos featured on WebMD and the Bump. She recently launched Tribe Called V with her business partner Jenny Hayes Edwards, offering various program for women to collaborate and learn about many health issues so that they can “increase their knowledge to decrease their anxiety.”
Dr. Ghofrany draws from her personal experience to enhance the care she provides. As a mother of three, she has her own insight into pregnancy and childbirth. She also personally benefited from the techniques she learned during her Integrative Health and Healing training while she underwent treatment for ovarian cancer. Since February 2019, she has grown her social media presence so that she can chat openly about “all things female,” focusing mostly on “increasing women’s knowledge to help decrease their anxiety” from 200 followers to over 30K followers as of May 2021. Follow her on Instagram @biglovefiercejuju.
By Shieva L. Ghofrany, M.D., FACOG