Watching for the Little Signs of Cancer

In my family practice, I have the good fortune of being reminded of how important it is to listen to the body and respond to any signs of stress or dysfunction. I try to live by my own advice as much as I can being only human.

My most recent reminder came on a more personal front with a family member receiving the diagnosis of uterine cancer. When we spoke the day before surgery I asked her (we’ll call her Jane) what signs let her know something was not right?

As is so often the case, the signs were subtle. Because Jane lives in her body and is present for the little changes; and because she addressed them immediately, the cancer was caught very early. Yeah!

I thought I would share her signs with you in hopes of providing clues that can make a difference.

Two years earlier Jane had a uterine fibroid that caused cramping and bleeding through menopause. She was checked and found to be cancer free. She had not had periods for several years, so when she began having a vaginal discharge that was discolored she watched carefully to see if it cleared. It did not clear but came and went over the period of the last year. She also realized that she was having mild cramping- something that had not occurred since the fibroid episode. Finally, she noticed a barely pink, possibly blood, staining to the discharge. That day, Jane made an appointment with her Ob Gyn.

An ultrasound was performed to check the status of the fibroid and they discovered a tumor. She was scheduled for a total hysterectomy within the month and may not have to do chemotherapy because the cancer was discovered so early.

One reason she watched closely was a family history of cancer. She had lost her mom to this form of cancer. She immediately let the family know that there is a genetic link, which includes the men in the family. Colon cancer is the most likely expression of the same cancer for men with this family history. Of course, sharing this history is important for the next generation so both men and women can be tested regularly.

What I learned both personally and professionally from this experience is the importance of knowing not only your family history, but knowing what is normal for you and your body throughout each phase of your life. Because it is the subtle hints that something has changed that we tend to brush off, they are small and we are often too busy to take time for them.

That fact that Jane has health insurance possibly changed the outcome. She was able to investigate thoroughly without compromising her monthly budget. I am hoping that progress on health care reform gives us all the equal opportunity to be preventive instead of in treatment.

We know that if we hear a noise in our car, we should have it checked early or a simple inexpensive fix can become a very expensive repair. Of course, we need to have the same perspective with our bodies. We can always trade in a car, but we only have one body to live in for a lifetime.

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