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.

Episiotomy

When I was younger I remember hearing the word episiotomy in relation to childbirth but never really knew what it meant.  As I got older, I heard the word less and less often.  That is until my senior year of college when I got to know the meaning of the word quite well without actually experiencing it myself.  In one of my seminar classes, a classmate (a midwife by day) was telling the class about the term paper she was writing.  It was about the birthing practices of rural Nicaragua.  She worked in a tandem network of midwives both here in the US and in Nicaragua.  She said that the practice of episiotomy in the US was almost completely extinct but that it was still commonly used in Latin America.

In a class of about 11 women and 1 man (poor guy!), we all wanted to know more about this “episiotomy.”  So, in the spirit of that midwife taking her time to explain this practice I hope to impart a better understanding of the practice on you.

I have heard an episiotomy rather brutally and frankly described as cutting the vagina to make it wider for a baby’s head to pass through more easily during birth.  This is basically true but is not necessarily as barbaric as it may sound.  The cut is actually a type of surgery and it is done under anesthesia.

Most Western countries (United States, Australia, and Europe in particular) have moved increasingly away from using the episiotomy because of the complications it can cause.  A birth may progress without any need for the vaginal opening to be wider or the perineum (skin at the back of the vagina) may tear on its own.  This, too, is not as gruesome as it may sound.  A natural “tear” is often much shallower than an episiotomy.  Thus an episiotomy may take longer to heal and cause more complications.

There are two main types of episiotomies:  one is basically a straight, lateral cut from the vagina backward–this is called midline.  The other kind is is called medio-lateral and is cut at more of an angle away from the anus.

While there is certainly a time and a place for an episiotomy (as there is for a Cesarean section), I believe that natural tearing is preferable to episiotomy if possible.  The midwife I mentioned earlier explained this in an example I will never forget.  She took a piece of notebook paper and cut it halfway through with scissors.  “This is an episiotomy,” she said.  She took another piece of paper and tore it half way.  She said, “This is a natural tear.”  The torn piece of paper had all sorts of fibers and extra edges to it that the cut piece of paper didn’t have.  These overlapping bits provide a better opportunity to heal.  (Imagine trying to glue the cut piece of paper back–you couldn’t!  But you could with the torn piece of paper.)

Some studies show episiotomies, especially midline, cause greater complications even after the healing has occurred.  For instance, a woman can have trouble with sexual intercourse–it can be painful due to scarring and her vaginal walls can have trouble becoming lubricated.

There are certain therapies (such as massage and perineal dilation) than can help give the vagina preparation for birth that will make it less likely that a doctor will perform an episiotomy.  In any event, it is yet another complicated decision that a mother must make in the birthing process.  Hopefully this sheds a bit more light on it.  Have questions or comments?  Don’t be shy–dive right in!

Müllerian Ducts and Sex Differentiation

Something that has always stuck with me since Intro to Biology years ago was something my professor said: females are the prototypical human sex. In other words, we all start out as females in a sense. It is not until around the 8 week benchmark in fetal development that a fetus starts to develop distinct sex characteristics. Generally speaking, from the moment of fertilization the embryo has an innate genetic sex (XX in a female; XY in a male). However, if you were to see a fetus before the 8 week mark, you would see that the genitalia is undifferentiated between XX and XY. That means that a female fetus and a male fetus look the same between the legs, so to speak.

So, why is that?  Why do female and male genitalia not differentiate from the moment of fertilization?  And what causes the differentiation when it happens?  And what did that professor mean by saying that females are the prototypical humans?  Well, it all has to do with the Müllerian ducts and hormonal reactions during pregnancy.

The Müllerian ducts are a set canals in the urogenital region of an embryo (that is, where the urinary and genital structures develop).  Depending on which way sex differentiation goes, the Müllerian ducts develop into the Fallopian tubes, uterus, and upper part of the vagina or they will begin to disappear leaving only small vestigial remains.  (The male reproductive organs develop out of the adjacent Wolffian duct.  These ducts begin to disappear during sex differentiation in females.)  Here is a diagram:

For reference, here is a list of homologous human reproductive structures (for instance, before sex differentiation, the scrotum and the labia majora are one and the same).

It is around this 8 week period that hormones are released from within a male fetus from the testes (from cells called Sertoli cells).  This is called the anti-Müllerian hormone.  The chromosomes of a male fetus receive this hormone and react by impeding the development of the Müllerian ducts.  In a female fetus, the chromosomes do not exist so the Müllerian ducts continue to develop.  From time to time, the necessary chromosome to inhibit the development of the Müllerian ducts in the male are missing.  (Remember that human chromosomes are incredibly complex, so when DNA is being “written” sometimes it can make a “typo.”)  When this happens, the fetus continues to develop the Müllerian ducts.  So, the genetically male fetus begins to grow a uterus and sometimes other female reproductive structures.  Usually, the testicles do not descend but a penis will still be present because it does not develop from the Müllerian ducts.  This is one of the many complications of determining sex at birth.  It may not be immediately clear what the child’s sex is.  This is called Persistent Müllerian duct syndrome (PMDS) and can also result as a failure of the testes to ever secrete the hormone.

So, going back to the words of my professor, all humans begin as embryos with the same “feminine” appearing genitalia.  This is why he says, with glee, that females are the prototypical humans.  Keep in mind all that the ancient Greek philosophers argued (and Freud, for that matter) that men were the essential human form and that women are defective versions of males.  Turns out, that all men start out as women in a manner.  There is a lot more to be said on this topic, but I will stop here for now.  Use the information you have learned here to impress your friends and put any obnoxious men in their place.  Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Vulva

I live!  I apologize greatly for such a prolonged absence, but it was important for me to focus these months on school.  It has paid off because as of today I hold a Master of Arts degree in Bioethics and Medical Humanities.  Hurrah!  Now, I hope to devote the proper amount of time to this blog.  I began writing an article about the vulva before my hiatus and decided to finish it for my return.

So, what is the vulva? What’s the difference between the vulva and the vagina? Isn’t it all just one, connected thing down there? Why are there different names if it’s just a vagina, after all?  What does the vulva do?  All good questions. All questions I hope to answer.

The word vulva comes from Latin and was used to mean “womb” or, more generally, “female genitals.”  In modern usage, the word vulva refers specifically to the the external genitals of the female.  The word vagina is often used as a catchall term to refer to both the internal and external reproductive organs of a female; however, to be completely correct, the vagina is an internal structure only and the vulva is the external structure only.  These external components that make up what we call the vulva include the clitoris, the labia majora and minora (outer and inner lips), the pubic mound (mons pubis), the vestibule of the vagina (the area inside the labia minora that includes the openings for the urethra and vagina), and the vaginal orifice (the actual opening of the vagina).

Here is a diagram:

Its development occurs during phases, particularly the fetal and pubertal stages.  As the entrance to the reproductive tract, it protects its opening by a “double door”:  the labia majora (large lips) and the labia minora (small lips).  The vagina is a self-cleaning organ with an environment that promotes healthy microorganisms that balance each other out and guard against invading, unhealthy elements.  Cleaning your vulva is important to gynecological health.  Simply use warm water and mild soap on a daily basis.  (Remember, this is for external use!)  It is unwise to use heavily perfumed soaps as they can irritate your vulva.  It is also unnecessary to douche unless a doctor specifically recommends it.  Douches can cause irritation and flush out those healthy microorganisms allowing for infection to set in.  The vulva is more vulnerable to infections than the external genitalia of males.  So, take good care of it.

The vulva is key to sexual functioning.  The external structures of female genitalia are very full of nerve endings allowing for pleasure when properly stimulated.  When aroused, the vulva undergoes several physical changes it making it one of the external signs that a woman is aroused.  First, moisture from the vagina reaches the vaginal orifice, moistening the vulva.  The labia majora become enlarged and spread apart somewhat and can change color somewhat (darkened from increased blood flow).  The labia minora and the clitoris also increase in size.  During orgasm, the various muscles contract, though most of these contracting muscles are not located in the vulva.  Following orgasm, stimulation of the vulva may be uncomfortable or even painful.  The increased blood flow slowly dissipates until the vulva returns to normal.

The vulva performs different functions than the vagina, thus it is important to know the difference between the vulva and the vagina.  Especially if you are talking to a medical professional, be sure to clarify whether you mean the internal structures (vagina) or the external structures (vulva).  Have anything to say about vulvas?  Have you say and leave a comment!