Breast cancer has made its cause known to the entire world, increasing everyone’s awareness of its preventions and dangers. But amid this blitz of pink, it’s also important for women to be proactive when it comes to other cancers.
Dr. Natalie Gould, who recently joined Women’s Cancer Center of Nevada (3131 La Canada St., Suite 241) as an oncologist, is making a push to increase women’s awareness of their whole body, including gynecologic cancers such as cervical, uterine and ovarian.
“A lot of people wonder why is there so much [publicity] for breast and so much less for ovarian,” Gould says. “The first difference is people don’t want to talk about down there, and second, many of them don’t live, whereas breast cancer patients live longer to tell their story.”
Those with ovarian cancer represent a much smaller number than those with breast cancer, she says, but that doesn’t mean the dangers of the disease should be overshadowed. There isn’t a screening for ovarian cancer like there is for breast cancer, and although women can get pap smears as a pre-cancer screening for cervical cancer, largely increasing women’s chances for survival, this doesn’t work for uterine or ovarian cancers.
“If you said, ‘I want to go to my gynecologist and get a screening for whether I have ovarian cancer,’ the answer is we don’t have a test like that,” Gould says. “We can do an exam and see if we feel anything, but it’s not particularly sensitive, so by the time I can feel something on an exam you probably don’t have anything good.”
However, there are a few symptoms women can recognize as a red flag for these diseases, just as a lump draws caution for breast cancer. If you have abdominal pains, irregular menstrual cycles, irregular bowel movements, flu-like symptoms or bladder problems that persist for more than two weeks, Gould suggests seeing your doctor.
You also might be helping decrease your chances of ovarian cancer already without even knowing. Being on birth-control pills at any point in your life lowers your risk of ovarian cancer by about half, Gould says. This is because the majority of ovarian cancer is caused when an egg releases and the surface of the ovary doesn’t heal correctly. While on birth control, a woman doesn’t ovulate as much, thus decreasing her risk. Pregnancy and having your tubes tied also lower your risk.
If you have a family history of any of these diseases, Gould suggests that you come in for a visit. There are certain tests, such as the CA-125, that can identify if you carry a BRCA gene, a mutation abnormality that puts you at risk for breast or ovarian cancer. It’s not foolproof, Gould warns, and there are many deficiencies within the exam that can make it false, such as pregnancy or endometriosis. But the best thing you can do for yourself is schedule a consultation.
“The most important thing is to go and talk before you get tested,” Gould says. “It’s a counseling process. We’d hate for someone to jump into a test and come back with bad results and not to be prepared for what it could mean for them.”
Besides seeing the doctors at the Women’s Cancer Center of Nevada, Gould also recommends that women schedule annual pap smears, exercise regularly, stick to a low-fat diet and practice safe sex, as the primary cause of cervical cancer is HPV infection.
“We all want to go to the doctor and take that test that says we’re going to live to be a hundred, but it doesn’t exist,” Gould says. “What you can do is take care of yourself, and we want women to be more aware that our doors are open for them.”
The Gould File
Family: Husband Lee Gordon, an independent surgical nurse; 8-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Schooling: Bachelor of science in biology as well as MD at University of North Carolina; Gynecologic Oncology Fellowship at University of Oklahoma.
Career highlight: Offering cutting-edge care through National Cancer Institute clinical trials as a principal investigator at Carilion Gynecologic Oncology Research Division in Virginia.
Her own good habits: She eats lots of fruits and vegetables, and recently got into running in marathon cancer benefits.
Favorite thought on health care: “Women need to be aware that pap smears are important but they are only screening for cervical cancer, not for ovarian or uterine cancers. It’s amazing how many women don’t know this.”