News and Tribune

January 28, 2014

BEAM: Waiting is the hardest part

By AMANDA BEAM
Local columnist

— Only one more week until Maria Begin’s wait is over. Just seven days until the tests come back and at least some of her worry can be nullified. Roughly 168 hours until she figures out if the doctors got it all in the first try.

Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at this pretty blonde with the side swept bangs and bright smile, Maria has endometrial cancer, a malignancy of the uterine lining. Make that, most likely, had. On Jan. 17, a doctor removed her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and a couple of lymph nodes, for good measure. Pathologists in a lab then study these removed organs and figure out if the cancer has spread. These are the results that the Jeffersonville native will receive Monday.

“We still don’t have those answers yet,” said Maria. “We hope it didn’t spread to any other stages. I still don’t know that yet. But all signs look good.”

You don’t hear too much about gynecological cancers. There’re no snappy slogans and few known charitable campaigns that educate the public on its impact. It’s rare to find a peach ribbon — a symbol of support for the illness — on items at the local mall.

In addition, women rarely talk about the hidden disease, even after undergoing treatment. Maria only heard of her friends’ experiences with this type of cancer after she wrote about her diagnosis online. Some had never told anyone outside of their family.

“I discovered that this is one of those cancers that either people don’t talk about or don’t know about,” Maria said. “With this type of cancer, you don’t know because it’s all covered. I guess that’s why women don’t know about it because it’s not as obvious.”

Even when not in the spotlight, these types of cancers affect tens of thousands of women each year. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 91,730 new cases of gynecological cancers were diagnosed in 2013. More than 28,000 women lost their lives to the diseases last year alone. Endometrial cancer, what Maria was diagnosed with, is the most common of these female reproductive cancers.

Discovering endometrial cancer isn’t always easy. Pap smears — the tests routinely given during annual OB/GYN checkups — screen for cervical cancer. Rarely do they detect uterine or ovarian malignancies. Doctors must rely on symptoms as a primary way to diagnosis these other illnesses.

For endometrial cancer, such signs include abnormal bleeding from the vagina, such as heavier than normal periods or vaginal bleeding after menopause. Maria had the former, visited her doctor and, on her recommendation, had surgery performed to remove the excess tissue from around her uterine wall that they thought was causing the increased bleeding.

Despite Maria having an ultrasound — one of the diagnostic tools — six months prior that came back normal, the physician discovered tumors during the procedure.

“My doctor said she doesn’t like surprises, but I was a surprise,” Maria said. “In the big picture, what people need to know is if you’re having heavy periods or you’re having any of those other weird symptoms, go see a doctor.”

Few women of Maria’s age develop endometrial cancer. Most cases occur in women between the ages of 60 and 70, with 62 years being the median age of diagnosis. But Maria did, at one time, have another factor that increased her risk of getting the disease — her weight.

Overweight women are in greater danger of having this type of cancer due to a basic fact; fat cells produce estrogen. The more fat cells you have, the more estrogen is produced.

Estrogen, together with progesterone, also regulates the endometrial tissue growth during a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. An increase in the hormone can promote excessive growth of this tissue, which allows for more cell mutations to possibly take place.

Reducing your weight, then, can have dramatic results. In a recent 2013 report by the American Institute for Cancer Research, researchers estimated that as many as three out of every five new cases of endometrial cancer could be prevented through two basic measures: physical exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Maria underwent lap-band surgery to help her lose weight. It worked, but health effects, even after the pounds come off, can still linger.

“The best thing I ever did was get that band,” she said. “Yeah, I’m still dealing with health concerns, but those health concerns would be worse had I not did it when I did.”

 For now, Maria continues to recuperate after her surgery, finding ways to fill the hours until she finds out her test results.

“My story is hopefully going to go well because I got lucky, not because I was informed,” she said. “What I want to stress to women is if they have any questions, ask.”

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com