#SelfCare: Doctors, Heredity and Ovarian Cancer

This week I had my annual checkup with my gynecologist. Now that I’m done having kids (we decided that very soon after the second one was born #sleeplessnights), I have different concerns to discuss with my doctor. You see, both my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother died of ovarian cancer. I learned about this when doing an oral history project for one of my Women’s Studies classes on the women in my family. My great-grandmother was just 31 when she died, leaving behind my then 12 year old grandmother and my great-grandfather. I can’t even imagine how devastated it would be to lose your mother at such a young and critical age. I don’t know much about what kind of medical treatment she received or at what point she realized she had cancer, but they had her on laudanum to keep her comfortable. Ovarian cancer is really hard to detect and this was in the early 1920’s when she was diagnosed (1923) and died (1925).

My grandmother died of ovarian cancer when she was about 60, so it hit her later in life. I was just a baby when she was receiving treatment. I do have a flash of a memory of getting into a rental car after flying down to Florida with my mom to visit her. The interior was red. Funny how you remember those little things, but I digress. My grandmother was active and healthy and had the same doctor for many years. She went to her doctor about pain and bloating in her lower abdomen but he just said “oh you girls just don’t drink enough water” (#sexism). When the pain didn’t go away he said it was gallstones. When they went in to remove her gallbladder they did a large incision and noticed that she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. They told her that with chemo she would live 2 more years, but without it she would only live 6 months. She did chemo but lost the battle 11 months later. She got to live longer than her mother, but 60 is still too young. I’ve heard wonderful stories about what an amazing woman she was and it really saddens me that I only had her for the first few years of my life which I don’t remember.

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Me and Grandma Rose. She was sick and towards the end of her life at this point. I treasure this picture of us as its the only one I have.

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With my role model for self-care. Love my Momma!

My mother had a benign tumor on the outside of her uterus at the age of 50. Because of her family history her doctor recommended a full hysterectomy. She wanted to talk with other women about the surgery and the after effects, but because of HIPPA regulations her doctor couldn’t connect her with his patients. She did find online support, but that was in 1998 so there wasn’t as much out there as there is now. Despite no knowing much about the after-effects, I’m glad that she agreed to the full hysterectomy. Now I don’t have to worry about her as much. She is definitely a wonderful role model for self-care. She was having problems with her hips a couple years ago and went ahead and had them both replaced. Now she’s walking around like nothing ever slowed her down. When something is not 100% with her health, she takes care of it. She doesn’t ignore it and hope it will go away. This is the main reason why I really listen to my body when it does new or different things. This will hopefully come in handy if I start to exhibit any of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, or any other ailment for that matter.

I brought up this history with my doctor this week. It was already in my medical chart, but I wanted her to know that I was concerned about it. I asked if there was anything I should be doing or looking out for. Guess what? She validated my concerns! High-five, doc! She asked lots of questions about each of the women on my mother’s side, including my aunt, and I was able to answer most of the questions (which I would not have been able to do if not for that Women’s Studies assignment). Since my mom didn’t have ovarian cancer (thank goodness for that), and we don’t know if she would have, but my grandmother and great-grandmother did, she decided to treat me as if my mother had had it. She prescribed me ultrasounds every 6 months. She said this is not fool-proof method. She told me of a patient that developed ovarian cancer in between her biannual ultrasounds. However, there isn’t much else to help you detect it. There is a blood test, but that isn’t always accurate. She said I may want to have the genetic test done to see if I’m at a higher risk. The ultrasounds are less invasive which I appreciate. If you’ve read either of my previous blogs Knitting Pidgen or Femiknitzm you might have picked up on that I’m terrible at giving blood. I’ve had enough ultrasounds with the three pregnancies (one ectopic) that I’m not nervous at all. Well, except maybe for the results. Speaking of my ectopic pregnancy (2008), I brought that up to my doctor as well and she said that had nothing to do with ovaries, just tubes. That piece of info helped me to relax a little.

I always thought I would have daughters, or at least one, but now that I’m really thinking about all this, I realize that it is a good thing that I had boys. This way I don’t pass on the ovarian cancer gene or whatever it is to daughters. I mean, not that it would have been a bad thing. Maybe by the time my daughter would have been my age they would have discovered not only a cure but a shot that would prevent it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that my mom had me, and her mom had her, and her mom had her. I’m just a little relieved that I don’t have to worry about continuing our history of ovarian cancer. I have many more positive things that I want to pass along to my future generations.

I do have an older sister and I will be talking with her about all this. I think she’s pretty good about listening to her body and getting things checked out, but it can’t hurt to have a sister-to-sister chat. It’s important that we know our bodies, listen to them, and talk with our doctors when we feel something might be wrong. I know people worry about being thought of as a hypochondriac, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Check out this video (and the symptoms listed below) from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition:

Okay, so now you get that it’s important. Now what? Know the symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation or menstrual changes

These symptoms can seem like every day kind of issues, but if they persist for more than two weeks and don’t go away after diet changes or rest, talk to your doctor. If your doctor brushes you off, find a new one. Ask your friends who they go to and trust. Just reading through the list worries me because I have several of these symptoms. However, I also know that I inherited my dad’s acid reflux issues which can cause some of these symptoms. I’ll admit that I’m a little worried, but my first ultrasound is scheduled for September 16th. Read all about ovarian cancer and the symptoms here at the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Listen to your bodies and choose a doctor that listens to your concerns and validates them instead of brushing them off easily. Your life depends on it.

(This post originally appeared on http://www.GrrrlWithBoys.blogspot.com on 9/1/14.)

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