Gynecologic cancers, including ovarian and uterine cancers, are among the most common cancers worldwide. Unfortunately, many myths and misconceptions surround these diseases, which can lead to delayed evaluation and treatment.
Here, an obstetrician-gynecologist who specializes in women’s cancer corrects several dangerous and widely held myths.
Some gynecologic cancers have obvious early symptoms. For example, postmenopausal bleeding can be a clear sign of early uterine cancer.
Other types of gynecologic cancers, especially ovarian cancer, can be subtle and hard to identify. This makes it easy for women to ignore the signs and delay seeking evaluation.
Dr. Melissa Frey, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, recommends that women consider the possibility of ovarian cancer and seek out the opinion of a gynecologist when symptoms cannot be explained by anything else. Learn more about the signs of ovarian and uterine cancers.
Dr. Frey also reiterates that women should visit their gynecologist annually for routine check-ups and to discuss any irregularities.
There are a number of risk factors that increase the chances of having ovarian or uterine cancer. However, it is crucial to understand that no one is exempt from the possibility.
“There is a misperception that only the Ashkenazi Jewish women have a predisposition to ovarian cancer,” Dr. Frey explained. “But as we genotype a wider population, we are learning there are genetic mutations present in many patient populations which result in a predisposition to cancer.”
Minority women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by gynecologic cancers. While genetics may contribute, lack of awareness and limited access to medical care are also important factors.
For this reason, Dr. Frey is a vocal advocate for improving accessibility to medical care for all women. “We cannot change underlying histologies (biological factors),” she reasoned. “What we can change is early detection, quickly moving patients from diagnosis to treatment, and ensuring that all patients have access to high volume surgical and medical centers, such as Weill Cornell Medicine.”
Lack of awareness or access to care are not the only reasons that women may avoid seeing a gynecologist. Some women may delay seeing a doctor because of the fear of a diagnosis. Because these cancers are often identified at later (more advanced) stages, many women think they are impossible to treat or cure. This stigma continues a vicious and hazardous cycle of misunderstanding.
Fortunately, new medical developments are counteracting this assumption. “Our ability to treat the disease has grown tremendously over the past few years,” Dr. Frey assured, “there are now new drugs and more targeted treatments.”
Surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy are all effective measures when dealing with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer can sometimes be cured. When not curable, women can often live many years, with the cancer becoming more of a chronic disease. Uterine cancer can often be cured with surgery alone.
“It is important for women to know that there are many options out there,” Dr. Frey insisted.
The fact that some women try and avoid a cancer diagnosis is understandable. No matter the prognosis, there is a road to recovery that must be navigated. The emotional, physical, and financial stress of such an ordeal can be a heavy burden to bear alone. “That is why networks of support become very powerful tools for our patients,” stressed Dr. Frey.
The stigma surrounding gynecologic cancers, however, can leave women feeling isolated. They may believe there is no one to talk to or help them through the process. Finding outlets for their issues and concerns becomes vital not only for a patient’s well-being but loved ones involved as well.
Support groups are one way patients and family members can connect with others going through similar experiences. Patient advocacy organizations can be a constructive way to help increase visibility and openness about the diseases.
Financial and logistical support can also be a necessary part of medical care. Dr. Frey encourages the utilization of social workers, such as those in place at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Social worker intervention is critical because we can identify problems that may prevent care, such as concerns about the cost of treatment or transportation to the hospital for medical care,” she said.
The need for support beyond a medical provider is why Dr. Frey encourages women to look for facilities with multiple levels of care available. “Cancer requires multidisciplinary care: seek an institution with expertise across all specialties,” she urged.
High-volume hospitals and highly ranked institutions, such as Weill Cornell Medicine, are better able to accommodate all aspects of a patient’s treatment including gynecology, genetic counseling, oncology, radiology, pain management, palliative care, and social work.
“Weill Cornell Medicine even offers a brand new women’s infusion center dedicated to chemotherapy for breast and gynecologic cancer,” praised Dr. Frey. “This is a unique setting for women to receive chemotherapy in an environment that focuses on women’s cancer and side effects pertinent to female patients.”
Dr. Frey and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology hope that helping women understand their options and increasing public awareness overall will begin to change our perspective and outlook regarding gynecologic cancers, correcting the misperceptions and false information.
Learn more about the cutting-edge treatments and services offered by the gynecologic oncologists at Weill Cornell Medicine.