The Big C: Cancer–The Disease in a Nutshell

Cancer is arguably the most feared disease in the Western world.  In America, cancer is the leading cause of death of people between 35-65 years of age.  Nearly 1 in 7 deaths worldwide in 2007 was due to cancer.  Cancer rates are exploding throughout the world as developing nations industrialize and eat diets that are less nutritious (think of pollution and McDonald’s).  Because of physiological and social reasons, gynecological cancers are some of the most lethal types of cancer in women.  To better understand gynecological cancers, let’s take a step back and get to grips with the basics of cancer.

Cancer is a disease affecting humans, and other animals, that is a result of abnormal cells growing out of control.  Cancer can happen in virtually any part of the body and there are more than 100 distinct types.  The cells in our bodies are continually regenerating.  There is a saying that our bodies completely regenerate every seven years.  (In fact, each type of cell–each part of the body– regenerates at a different pace.)  When our bodies dictate the script (DNA being the script) that causes cell reproduction, occasionally there is a typo.  Many different things (such as smoking) can cause a “typo.”  When this happens, the body has difficulty righting the mistake and it can grow out of control resulting in cancer as seen in this illustration:


The top half of the illustration is a process called apoptosis, by which a damaged cell is removed through programmed cell death.  (I jokingly think of apoptosis as telling a “bad cell” to “pop off.”)  A lack of apoptosis is when the damaged cells are not programmed out.  This is where cancer begins.

If this growth of abnormal cells is caught in an early stage, it usually can be treated easily by removing the growth.*  Stages are a means by which the cancerous growths can be classified by how far along it has progressed.  There are four main stages, and with specific types of cancers there are further subdivisions such as “Stage II-C.”  Usually by the time a cancerous growth has reached the fourth, most advanced stage it has undergone a process called metastasis.

Metastasis is when the cancer spreads from its primary site to other sites.  So, if you hear an official cancer diagnosis, it may sound something like, “metastatic breast cancer” or “metastatic cancer primary to the liver.”  This indicates where the cancer began and that it is present in other locations.  Metastasis usually occurs through the body’s lymphatic system.  That’s why one often hears about lymph nodes in relation to cancer.

There are innumerable ways in which cancer is diagnosed.  Once it is found and diagnosed, there is a great divergence between how cancer behaves and how it is best treated depending on the type of cancer, medical history, and other factors.  If you ever find yourself receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to create a very specific plan with your physicians–no two diagnoses are ever exactly identical.  Hopefully this brief overview of the Big C helps build your understanding of the disease if you ever find yourself in close contact with cancer.

*(In my case, I had a very slow-growing cancer.  So, even though it was not caught at all “early,” it was still in an early stage.)

Herpes and Hepatitis B

Herpes and Hepatitis B are two sexually transmitted diseases that are often confused with one another because of their similar names.   The similarities end there.  What are the differences between the two?  And what are the symptoms, the causes, and the treatments?

The technical name for herpes is herpes simplex and it is caused by one of two viruses:  herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).  (Pretty obvious names, right?)  HSV-1 causes oral sores commonly called cold sores (pictured below).  HSV-2 causes genital herpes, the dreaded sexually transmitted disease that about 1 in 7 adults in the United States currently have.  Herpes goes through cycles of being active and inactive (when sores are present or not present).  Genital herpes can be spread during both the active and inactive cycles, even when being treated.  Herpes has no cure and will last a lifetime if contracted.


Herpes is not a fatal disease (though it can be if passed between a mother and baby during childbirth) but it can be quite annoying and embarrassing.  There are treatments to help moderate the disease, but it is important to remember that herpes can always be spread even when it is in an inactive stage.  The treatments for herpes are anti-viral and the best choice for you can be determined by your physician.  There is currently no vaccination to prevent herpes, but there may be in the future.

Herpes is a disease that is quite easy to detect visually, unlike that other H-disease hepatitis B.  Hepatitis B (often shortened to hep-b) is also caused by a virus, called hepatitis B virus (HBV; pictured below).  Hep-b is a disease that affects a staggering number of people.  Over 2 billion people are believed to have the disease.  It is spread by the transmission of bodily fluids (notably through blood transfusions and sexual acts, as well as other ways).

Hepatitis B affects the liver by causing acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) inflammation.  This can result in jaundice, cirrhosis, and sometimes liver cancer.  The earliest symptoms, preceding these maladies, can include nausea, vomiting, body aches, mild fever, and darker than usual urine.  These can be mistaken for other illnesses if testing is not carried out.  These early symptoms often go away on their own but the disease may still be present allowing for more damage to the liver and for it to be spread to others.

So, it is crucial to visit a physician in order to have a test (usually a blood test) performed to determine the exact nature of your illness.  Hep-b very often clears on its own in those who suffer from the acute version.  However, the acute version may develop into a longer course of chronic hep-b.  If this occurs, it can cause serious damage to the liver and may even result in death.  Young adults, children, and infants are much more likely to develop chronic hepatitis B from the acute disease.  Though a virus cannot be totally cured through medication, it can be slowed and inhibited from causing more damage.

Hep-b is a disease that can be protected against.  The best means of protection is by receiving the vaccination against it.  This offers long-term protection.  As in any sexual situation, it is always best to be as careful as possible and in this case a condom will greatly lower the risk of spreading the disease.

So, to sum up, herpes is associated with genital sores, is generally not fatal, and can never be cured.  Hepatitis B has few outward symptoms, can be fatal if not monitored, and can only be cured by the body’s natural virus-fighting processes.  So, if you’re worried at all about either of these diseases, please visit a doctor who can make sure that your issues are carefully dealt with.  Your and your sexual partner’s health rely on it.

Syphilis

Syphilis–we have all heard of it and are probably all vaguely afraid of it.  But what is it?  What does it do?  How does it spread and can it be cured?  Let’s find out.

The word “syphilis” comes from the 1530 poem titled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (“Syphilis or the French Disease”).  In the poem, the supposed first sufferer of syphilis was named Syphilus.  Both “syphilis” and the “French disease” were names given to the illness when it first showed up in Europe at the very end of the fifteenth century.  The ultimate biological origins of the disease are debated.  Throughout the middle ages, syphilis was treated with applications of mercury.  By the start of the twentieth century, somewhat more effective treatments were being used.  It was not until the mid-twentieth century with the rise of penicillin and other antibiotics that syphilis could be cured.

Syphilis is caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum. There are two main types of syphilis:  transmitted (that which is passed sexually) and congenital (that which is passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus).  Congenital is the most dangerous and is a leading cause of infant mortality in much of the world.  Transmitted is the most common type of syphilis and goes through four phases.

Phase one:  Primary.  This is the phase immediately after the syphilis as been communicated.  The first phase of syphilis is when it is most likely to be spread because there are open chancres (said like ‘shank-er’), but it can be spread any time.  These are responsible for spreading the disease, though simply covering the chancre(s), with a condom for instance, is not enough to stop transmission totally.  Chancres may appear in the newly infected person within anywhere from a week to several months after the transmission.  There is usually just one sore in the area of the genitals (or mouth, if sex was oral), though there are sometimes more and they usually remain for 1-2 months.  The spot may appear in a normally unviewed location.  In this case, syphilis may continue to the second phase before it is detected and treated.  Generally, the sooner it is detected, the more easily it can be treated.

Phase two:  Secondary.  This phase occurs about 2-3 months after the initial infection.  The range of symptoms during this stage is wide, but the most common include a widespread reddish, non-itching rash that covers various body parts (often including the back, chest, arms, legs, hands, and/or feet).  Also common are flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, sore throat, and headache.  Many other types of symptoms may occur and it is best to consult a physician in order to have tests run.  This phase usually lasts 1-2 months before the symptoms disappear–but the disease is still there!

Phase three:  Latent.  During this phase, the disease’s symptoms go into hiding.  Those who have not yet sought out medical help may assume the disease has cleared up on its own.  This is virtually unheard of.  A blood test will quickly reveal the presence of syphilis.  This phase may last 1-15 (or more!) years.  Syphilis can be quite deceptive.

Phase four:  Tertiary.  This phase announces the roaring return of syphilis symptoms.  By the time this occurs, it is too late to effectively treat syphilis.  This is why it is of the utmost importance to investigate syphilis early by undergoing testing.  Various symptoms may occur, including a type of chronic inflammation resulting in large, tumor-like growths called gummas.  Tertiary syphilis sufferers may also develop massive swelling of the aorta of the heart called aortic aneurysm; if this ruptures, it will quickly cause death.  A third, main type of tertiary symptom is neurological in which the brain and central nervous system are eroded causing dementia and other problems.  Treatment can still be administered at this point, but it will not be able to reverse the damage already done.  Left untreated, syphilis can be fatal–a very unpleasant way to die.

So, the bad news is that syphilis is easily transmitted between individuals and is, for the first time in more than 50 years, increasing in prevalence.  The good news is that syphilis is very curable.  The earlier it is found, the less damage it can do and the easier it is to treat.  So, if you have any suspicions, please see your doctor right away and you’ll soon be on the path to good health again.

The First Visit to the Gynecologist: A Guide (Part Two)

Finding Eve returns with Part Two of this first-timer’s guide.  (Click here for Part One.)

During your appointment:

  1. LISTEN!  You will be given a series of instructions throughout your appointment.  Things will generally be more comfortable for you if you follow them.  They may want the paper gown to open in the front or the back or the side.  They may want you sitting, standing, lying on your back.  Just pay attention and things will go much more smoothly.
  2. Be vocal.  Now that you’re getting into the stirrups and down to business, it’s up to you to make sure your doctor knows how you feel.  For example, if you have a bad back and lying a certain way hurts, let the doctor know she or he will usually be happy to accommodate.
  3. Remember your breasts.  Most, but not all, gynecologists will give your breasts a once-over to check for lumps, bumps, and irregularities.  So, be prepared for this.  This might be the most awkward you’ll feel since the doctor will be nearly face-to-face with you at this point.
  4. Be prepared for some unusual sensations.  No matter your level of comfort with your genitalia, your first appointment with the OB/GYN will be something new.  The doctor will need to insert a few things in your vagina.  It’s an unavoidably strange situation, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare, so be prepared for the following:
  • The first thing in will generally be a speculum.  This is a device that goes in to spread the vaginal walls to allow the doctor to see in.  There will be bright lights focused on your vagina to aid in this.  While the doctor looks around, she or he will also use a swab to take a sample of cells from your cervix.  You’ll barely be able to feel the swab, so don’t be too worried about it.  The swab is then sent away for testing to see if you have (pre-)cancerous cells.  This is called a Pap smear.  REMEMBER, this only tests for one type of gynecologic cancer (cervical).  Keeping track of your periods and pelvic health is your best bet for detecting other types of cancer.
  • After the swab for the Pap smear has been collected the doctor will “manipulate” your pelvis.  That is to say, it’s time for the rough and tumble part of the exam.  Really, it is not as bad as it sounds or may look in the diagram below.  (Believe me, I have had several severe pelvic surgeries and I make it through the pelvic manipulation fine.)  This, to me, is the most important part of the exam.  The doctor is using her or his hands to “see” what’s inside you and to make sure all is well.  It’s normal to grimace.  It’s not the most normal feeling, but it will soon be over!
  • Ask questions!  Generally, after the manual exam, the doctor says you can sit up.  This is your invitation to ask questions.  Since this is your first time, you should ask as many questions as you want.  Many doctors’ offices will schedule first-timers with longer appointments because they expect the patients to have more questions.  Don’t be shy.  If there is any thing that you don’t understand or have reservations about below the belt, ASK!  The doctor will be able to help explain whatever it may be, and this will put your mind at ease.

    After your appointment:

  1. Follow through!  If the doctor recommends that you take care of yourself with some therapy, medicine, or change, do it.  If it is something drastic, feel free to go to another doctor for a second opinion.  It is your body, after all.
  2. If you are having testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), you may be asked to make another appointment at a lab.  Larger doctors’ offices usually have their own lab, so you may be escorted across the hall to have blood taken.  If you’re afraid of having blood drawn, be prepared!  Drawing blood is crucial to many standard gynecological tests, so don’t be worried if you’re referred for blood work.
  3. Keep in touch.  You will most likely receive your test results (Pap smear, blood work, etc.) in the mail or over the phone in the subsequent two week.  If, after 2-4 weeks, you have not heard anything, call your doctor’s office!  You paid for those tests, so you have the right to know how they turned out.   Things can get lost in the mail or misplaced, so take the reins and find out.  The office staff won’t begrudge you at all.
  4. Remember to make an appointment for next year.  You should never go more than a year without a visit to the gynecologist’s.  Most insurance will only cover one visit in a 365 day period, so if you went on May 1st one year, you will have to wait until least May 1st of the next year.

Remember, this guide is intended as a rough guide to your first visit.  No two appointments will ever be identical.  It is important to do what is right for you.  Please feel free to add your comments and questions and thanks for reading!

The First Visit to the Gynecologist: A Guide (Part One)

A young woman’s first visit to the gynecologist can be daunting.  Women who have already been for a gynecological check-up generally report that it’s unpleasant.  So, naturally, this scares others and many avoid going until they have to.  BUT!  I’m here to help quell those fears and insist that all young women go for a check-up.  My first visit to the gynecologist was about as traumatic as possible, but I know that I might not be alive today if I had not gone.  So, it is of the utmost importance that you take your health seriously and face any fear you might have of going to the gynecologist.  Almost every young woman comes out after that first visit and says, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

Before your appointment:

  1. Do your research!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re off to a good start.  Continue on by finding a local gynecologist that you are comfortable visiting.  Many young women who nervous about their first appointment find it easier to visit a female physician.  It will serve you well to talk to friends about who they go to and why.  Also, look into insurance matters.  It can be really confusing, but ask the office staff of your doctor of choice to help you confirm what is or is not covered by insurance–they’re experts and can find out what you need to know.
  2. Monitor your period.  This is an important habit to keep up your whole life.  If you’ve never kept track of your periods before, start right now!  Keep a calendar record of when your periods begin and end and make notes about any irregularities (more pain, heavier flow, etc.).  You’ll be expected to know how regular (or irregular) your periods are at the doctor’s.
  3. Decide on a day and make the appointment.  Once you known when your “safe times”* are, call the doctor’s and make that appointment!  Just making the appointment is half the battle–the next half is keeping the appointment.  You can do it!

* Many gynecologists will not perform an exam when a woman is menstruating since the blood may obscure their view of the vaginal structures–they look for any abnormalities that are visible to the naked eye.

The day of your appointment:

  1. Shower!  Or bathe!  Just get clean somehow.  Doctors encounter enough unpleasantness throughout a working day–they will thank you for not adding to it.
  2. Try to stay as calm as possible.  Being nervous and jumpy will make the appointment even more lousy.  Take deep breaths, listen to calming music, think happy thoughts.  It might be a good idea to take a friend with you if you’re really nervous.
  3. Get to your appointment on time!  Most doctors’ offices will give a recommendation of how early you should arrive.  Follow it.  If you have a bit of time to spare, you might even show up earlier than that.
  4. Almost across the board, a gynecological appointment requires the patient to provide a urine sample.  So, about an hour or so before your appointment start sipping on water (or your beverage of choice).  They will collect the sample before your actual appointment with the doctor begins and you’ll want to have something in your bladder to give.
  5. Be prepared to answer questions!  Each doctor’s office will ask a different set of questions, but here are some of the most common ones:  When was the first day of your last period (menses/menstruation/etc.)?  What medications are you taking?  (Don’t forget non-prescriptions like vitamins!)  Have you been experiencing any problems, pain, or irregularities?  Do you have a family history of cancer . . . anything?  Are you sexually active?  (BE HONEST!  If you’re nervous about a parent finding out, don’t be.  Doctors, by law, have to respect your confidentiality.)
  6. Wear clothes that are easy to remove.  Wearing clothes with lots of buttons and buckles and so on are a rookie mistake.  You’ll be glad to have a shift dress or sweatpants or what-have-you when they only give you 90 seconds to disrobe!  You might have more time than this, but more often than not I have been given very little time to climb out of my clothes and into the paper clothes.  (Also, wear nice socks.  You’ll want something warm on your feet when you rest of you is clothed in paper.  Your feet will be in the doctor’s face for much of the appointment, so pick nice ones.


The is just the first half of the guide!  Part Two will be published soon.  As always, feel free to add any comments, recommendations, or questions.

(Here is Part Two.)

Teen Pregnancy and the Rhythm Method

I read in the news today about a report released a few days ago by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  The headline that emerged in numerous articles as a result of this report was that the use of the rhythm method to prevent pregnancy by teenagers rose from 11% in 2002 to 17% in 2010.  This is quite a jump.  The report was made to investigate why the teen pregnancy rate has risen markedly in recent years.  In fact, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed country in the world and one of the highest teen abortion rates.  So, I have decided it is time to tackle the issue of the rhythm method.

So, what is the rhythm method?  If there is such a great leap of teenagers responding that they have used it, it is pretty important for young women (you, the reader!) to understand what it is.  In general terms, the rhythm method is a means of birth control by which the female avoids sexual contact during the supposed window of fertility based on a calendric monitoring of her menstrual cycles.  In other words, if a young woman has a consistent 28 day menstrual cycle, she can estimate the days she will be fertile by following the “rhythm” of her menstrual cycle.  Here is an example of what a menstrual calendar would look like (with menstruating days in red and fertile days in green):

With perfect use, meaning that a young woman meticulously keeps track of her period without fail and strictly avoid sex on possibly fertile days, pregnancy still happens 9% of the time.  If you wanted to avoid pregnancy, would you really want to take a 1 in 10 chance?  But, keep in mind that virtually all forms of birth control are not used perfectly.  So, with typical use (a slip up here and there), the rhythm method results in pregnancy 25% of the time.  That is 1 in 4!  So, needless to say that the rhythm method is not a terribly effective means of preventing pregnancy.  Other factors make the rhythm method less reliable, especially for young women.  In particular, a woman’s period does not become regular (and therefore predictable) for quite some time after the first period, called menarche.  Hormones are in flux during adolescence and early adulthood, so the monthly time of fertility is particularly unpredictable for young women.  Other times in a woman’s life when the rhythm method is especially ineffective include just after giving birth (as hormones are again in flux), after discontinuing the use of a oral contraceptive (“the pill,” which manipulates hormones), and around the time of menopause when, yet again, hormones are in flux.  Hormones can be affected by a variety of factors including stress and emotions.  So, the rhythm method can never be 100% effective.

The rhythm method has generally been rejected as a useful means of birth control [page 375] (except, notably, by the Catholic Church) in the past few decades, so it is eyebrow raising that teenagers are suddenly reporting a significantly increased use of it.  The rhythm method was first proposed in the early twentieth century.  Before this time, the function of ovulation as the key to fertility was not yet understood.  When science could finally understand these processes, it was determined that in the normal menstrual cycle a woman ovulates once occurring about 14 days before the beginning of the next period.  When this was discovered, gynecologists promoted it to patients as a means to help promote pregnancy.  Some years later, in 1930, a Catholic physician in the Netherlands began to promote this as a means to help avoid pregnancy.  Catholic organizations in Europe and America also began to advocate this means of birth control throughout the 1930s.  By the 1960s, the popularity of the rhythm method as a means of birth control had begun to wane, especially with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960.

Avoiding pregnancy is generally the point of using the rhythm method, but it extremely important to point out that the rhythm method in no way stops the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (and neither do birth control pills).  Condoms are the safest and most effective way to avoid spreading or getting a disease during sex.  Abstaining from sex altogether is the only 100% effective method of avoiding both disease and pregnancy.  So, if you are a young woman considering using the rhythm method, please keep all of this in mind.  If you have any comments or questions, I’d be glad to hear from you!

Endometriosis

In the past two weeks, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone mention in conversation “endometriosis.” I have several friends and family members who have endometriosis, so it is not an altogether unfamiliar subject to me. However, I have never given much thought to endometriosis.   So, in writing this blog entry I hope to educate both myself and my readers a bit.

To start with the root, the word endometriosis comes from the Greek words meaning “inside” and “womb.”  Remember that the endometrium is the layer lining the uterus.  Here is a diagram:

The endometrium is where the embryo implants after it has been fertilized, so it is an integral part of reproducing.  Without a healthy endometrium, an embryo is not likely to implant successfully.

Interestingly, too many endometrial cells are a bad thing, and this is what endometriosis is:  the proliferation (spread) of endometrial cells outside of the uterus, especially common on the ovaries.  These cells respond as the endometrium does to hormonal changes over the course of a menstrual cycle.  So, imagine that you have endometrial cells throughout your pelvis and not just in your uterus.  Menstrual cramps would be amplified–the pain difficult to bear.  So, if you have particularly unmanageable menstrual pain during your period, please visit your doctor.  You may have a disorder such as endometriosis.  Only investigation by a medical professional can determine the source of the pain.

It is estimated that between 5-10 percent of women are affected by endometriosis.  Its effects generally do not manifest until menarche (first menstrual cycle) and usually diminish following menopause, though not always.  A large number of women who are infertile are infertile because of endometriosis (about 20-50%).  The proportion of women with chronic pelvic pain who suffer from endometriosis is much higher (about 80%).  There seems to be an increase in incidence of endometriosis in families that affected by it.  Women with an immediate relative with endometriosis has a higher risk of having endometriosis.  There is some association between endometriosis and certain types of cancer (especially ovarian), so it is important to know if you have endometriosis or if you have another malady with similar symptoms.

Endometriosis usually appears in patches within the pelvis that are often visible to the human eye during surgery because they can appear as darkened bluish-black spots.  Here is a diagram example of endometriosis:

Not all endometriosis appears as darkened spots, so it is necessary sometime to perform biopsies to be certain.  Endometriosis causes an inflammatory response that often causes scar tissue.  This scar tissue is frequently problematic in a variety of ways, including being the cause of infertility.  The cause of endometriosis is, so far, unknown but it is believed that there is more than one possible cause.  Hopefully, further research will uncover causes that can help in management and treatment of the disease.  Symptoms, too, can vary widely across endometriosis sufferers.  Abdominal pain being the most common symptom, others include:

  • nausea, vomiting, fainting, dizzy spells
  • frequent or constant menstrual flow
  • chronic fatigue
  • heavy or long uncontrollable menstrual periods with small or large blood clots
  • mood swings
  • pain in legs and thighs
  • back pain
  • mild to extreme pain during intercourse
  • mild to severe fever
  • headaches
  • depression
  • Again, it is important to remember that other disorders can have similar symptoms to endometriosis.  It is crucial to consult a doctor if you are experiencing problems in order to accurately determine what you have.  Never rely on an “Internet diagnosis.”  This article is just scratching the surface of this topic (maybe I will write “Endometriosis:  Part 2”), so please feel free to leave comments and questions!