Ovaries and Testicles and Prostates, OH MY! Cancer, it’s not just for breasts anymore!
We like breasts. A lot, actually. They’re pretty, and soft. They come in an endless variety of shapes and sizes, and they feed babies. So it’s no surprise that we hate breast cancer. It kills people we love, and their breasts. However, thanks to amazing organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, there has been tremendous progress made in the research of, and recovery from, breast cancer. In fact, we actually think that breasts have started to eclipse some of the light that needs to shine into other body parts. Parts that are less glamorous, but that get cancer that is no less deadly.
Let’s face it, all those Greek statues and Renaissance paintings feature glorious breasts, prominently displayed and duly worshipped. But, when’s the last time you saw anyone worshipping an ovary? Or a prostate on a pedestal? Even when all those crazy Republicans had everyone Googling to find the alternative meaning of “tea-bagging,” no one paid much attention to testicular cancer.
Reproductive cancers are a serious problem. According to a 2009 report by The American Cancer Society, an estimated 282,690 people developed new cases of Genital System Cancers in 2009. (Breast cancer, by comparison, claimed 194,280 new cases, which is a lot less, but still 194,280 too many.)
That study shows the following breakdown of reproductive cancers:
- Uterine Cervix 11,270
- Uterine Corpus 42,160
- Ovarian 21,550
- Vulva 3,580
- Vaginal & other genital 2,160
- Prostate 192,280
- Testicular 8,400
- Penis & other genital 1,290
And that doesn’t count Urinary System cancers, which is another 131,010 people with cancer in or around their private parts.
So, as much as we love breasts, we need to stand up for penises too. And ovaries, and testicles and all the other nether regions that make up our collective “sexy bits.”
I’LL SHOW YOU MINE
Like any other cancer, one of the major keys to surviving reproductive cancer is early detection. In this, breasts have a distinct advantage because they’re easy to access. It is considerably harder to find an obvious sign like a lump in your prostate or ovary. This makes two things vitally important:
First, know your body so that you know when something changes. Things like painful intercourse, change in urination and even a feeling of being constantly bloated can be telltale signs of reproductive cancers. Pay attention to your body and don’t be embarrassed to discuss any changes with the people in your life. Not just doctors, but your close friends and family, all of who are likely to know someone who has had cancer and may recognize symptoms that you would dismiss.
Secondly, get regular physical exams, including gynecological exams, and communicate clearly with your doctor. Many reproductive cancers, like ovarian cancer, have virtually no symptoms until the disease is quite advanced, making early detection impossible without a doctor’s screening exams.
Dr. Nicole Urban is a cancer researcher at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (also known as “The Hutch”) in Seattle, Washington. Although she is on the leading edge of cancer research, she adamantly reminds people, “We need to pay attention to signals from our bodies and insist that our doctors use whatever tools are available to follow up on our reports of possible symptoms.”
Joan McAree knows all too well how important it can be to catch cancer at an early stage. In fact, she knows twice as well as most people, having been diagnosed with both breast cancer and ovarian cancer in the same year.
“I have to say when I was diagnosed with both cancers in the same year, I felt as though I’d been given a double death sentence! I soon found out that I was one of the ‘lucky ones’ because both cancers were found at an early and treatable stage!!”
During her annual gynecologic checkup several years ago, Joan’s doctor found she had an enlarged ovary. An ultrasound revealed early stage ovarian cancer. Joan had a successful hysterectomy, but five months later her doctor found cancer again — in her left breast. Fortunately, this was also caught early, at a highly treatable stage.
“I thought I was a healthy person,” she said. “I ran, I was a ski instructor, I watched what I ate. But as I found out, cancer doesn’t play by the rules.”
Jean is now participating in a groundbreaking early cancer detection study led by The Hutch scientists in Seattle. Early detection remains the most promising “cure” to cancer.
Simply put, it’s easier to fix a small problem than a big one. Imagine the difference between fixing a leak in your roof, or having to fix the entire structure of your house because of a roof with many holes in it. Early detection is a way to find a leak, and not have to treat the whole house.
However, with most reproductive cancers, there are few symptoms until the cancer is already fairly advanced, so researchers around the world are trying to find more ways to detect cancer before we are aware that we have it.
TRUTH AND DARE
At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, their researchers are very focused on biomarker research. They believe the key to a potentially cancer-free future actually lies right in our own blood, where proteins and other molecules contain the biomarkers that hold critical information about cancer.
Dr. Urban is just one of the researchers who sees such potential in the blood that already brings us life. “I am hopeful that one or more blood tests for ovarian cancer will prove useful in its early detection, most likely to select women for imaging,” she explains. The idea is that by being able to locate biomarkers in our blood, doctors will know which people should have further testing, even if they are currently asymptomatic.
She has reason for optimism. There have already been great strides made in cervical cancer, which will help fuel research for other cancers. “Early detection of cervical cancer is a big success story,” she reports. “Ovarian cancer is challenging because it has no viral etiology (to our knowledge) and is buried deep inside where it cannot be easily seen and causes few symptoms. In addition it is relatively rare making it difficult to identify a cost-effective screening strategy.”
And that cost-effective conundrum is where the general public comes in – and maybe the commercial cancer-combating machine, like the ubiquitous “pink ribbon” campaigns that have done so much for breast cancer.
We admit to being a tad-cynical about the whole pink-ribbon machine. That said, it did get people talking about breast cancer, and doing something about it. There have been millions of dollars raised to fund research and treatment, and its hard to argue with that. (Though, you have to buy a whole lot of yogurt to make a relatively small contribution to cancer research. We’d urge you to donate directly to the organization of your choice, like The Hutch.)
The research that might ultimately stop cancer in its tracks is complicated and expensive. But it’s also very exciting. Researchers at The Hutch are pioneers in this growing area of medical science. Among their groundbreaking efforts:
Biomarker Discovery — They are one of two institutions in the country chosen to lead a National Cancer Institute-sponsored project to discover new cancer biomarkers.
Risk Assessment — Hutch scientists are using newly discovered cancer biomarkers to screen women at risk for ovarian cancer to detect the earliest signs of disease. They’ve also developed a method for monitoring cancer risk and onset in patients with the precancerous condition Barrett’s esophagus, a technique that’s boosted survival rates for esophageal cancer from 5 percent to more than 80 percent.
Improving Cancer Care — Biomarkers help doctors to choose the best course of treatment for a patient and to quickly monitor if the treatment is working. They have developed a highly sensitive test to detect the earliest signs of leukemia relapse, and are working to develop new methods that can be used to predict prognosis and evaluate response to treatment for breast, prostate and other common cancers.
Understanding the connection between biomarkers and cancer will transform the way that cancer is caught and cured. Not only will the development of sensitive early cancer-detection tests save tens of thousands of lives each year, it will do so at a fraction of the cost it takes to develop and test new drugs for advanced cancer — most of which don’t lead to a cure.
If all that’s going to happen, it’s going to take all of us. Do your part: Know your body, Talk to your doctor, Talk about cancer and Donate directly to the research that can save lives.
KNOW YOUR RISK AND KNOW THE SYMPTOMS!
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding that occurs between regular menstrual periods
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam
- Menstrual periods that last longer and are heavier than before
- Bleeding after going through menopause
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during sex
- Pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs
- A swollen or bloated abdomen
- Nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, or diarrhea
- Feeling very tired all the time
- Feeling the need to urinate often
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Urinary problems
- Not being able to pass urine
- Having a hard time starting or stopping the urine flow
- Needing to urinate often, especially at night
- Weak flow of urine
- Urine flow that starts and stops
- Pain or burning during urination
- Difficulty having an erection
- Blood in the urine or semen
- Frequent pain in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs
- A painless lump or swelling in a testicle
- Pain or discomfort in a testicle or in the scrotum
- Any enlargement of a testicle or change in the way it feels
- A feeling of heaviness in the scrotum
- A dull ache in the lower abdomen, back, or groin
- A sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
All photos by Matt Freedman: www.silentcolor.com