Good Health Isn’t About Luck — It’s About Early Detection

July 7, 2016

The day my doctor found my pelvic mass was supposed to be very routine. So routine that I almost canceled my exam. I glossed over minor issues because they barely made an impression on my hectic days. Fortunately, I went. During my pelvic exam, my doctor found a 7-centimeter cyst on my left ovary. I didn’t even know what cysts were at the time, let alone what having one might mean.

My doctor didn’t seem worried, but he was proactive. He discussed the importance of observing the cyst over the next four to six weeks to see if it would go away; however, he scheduled an ultrasound and blood tests just in case. I thank God he did.

Less than four weeks later, I was sitting with a gynecologic oncologist. That’s when I first heard the word “mass” as it related to my ultrasound … my body.

“Mass means surgery,” he said. “A mass is not going to go away, so no matter what it is — benign or malignant — it has to come out surgically. We just won’t know what we’re dealing with until then.”

I went into that appointment thinking about our plans to have another baby, and I came out of it trying to process the fact that there was a potentially cancerous mass inside my body. That was certainly not a joyful day for me, but it was certainly one of the luckiest.

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A short while later, I learned that the mass was a tumor and that I had ovarian cancer. The news rocked my world, but I was fortunate. We caught it early enough that the surgery and chemotherapy were effective, and I’m now cancer-free.

Many women haven’t been so lucky. Most of us enter adulthood unfamiliar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer and are therefore unable to spot the warning signs. I didn’t think twice about tummy aches or weight loss. What woman hasn’t felt bloated? Even if we do know what to look for, we’re often so busy taking care of everyone else that we don’t notice what our bodies are trying to tell us.

Vermillion’s OVA1 technology is an important step toward understanding the risks before surgery (so women don’t have to face dreadful uncertainty), but as women, we must be more vigilant about our health. Having lived through ovarian cancer, I know firsthand how frightening it can be. But I also know that educating and empowering ourselves is vital to surviving ovarian cancer.

Here are the most valuable lessons I learned about how we can take control of our health:

1. Listen to Your Body

Women don’t listen to our bodies enough. We juggle kids, spouses, work, and a million other obligations, and we put ourselves on the back burner. No matter how many articles we read about prioritizing our health, we brush off pain and discomfort as we rush to the next meeting or play group. But that’s when we’re most at risk.

I was so out of touch with my body that I didn’t even realize I’d been having early symptoms until after I finished chemotherapy. My husband heard me say in an interview that I hadn’t noticed anything amiss until my doctor found the mass. He finally spoke up and said, “Shannon, what are you talking about? You were having major stomach pains.”

I reflected on the months leading up to my diagnosis and remembered that I had lost 6 pounds in four weeks. And my husband was right — I had been suffering from frequent stomachaches. But it never occurred to me that I might have ovarian cancer. I just thought I’d eaten something that didn’t agree with me! On the day my doctor found the tumor, I began the appointment by telling him I felt great. I had no idea what was happening inside my body.

Pay attention when something feels “off,” and tell your doctor about it. Even if it’s nothing, you want to cultivate a habit of listening to your body and taking your health seriously.

2. Know the Signs and Symptoms

Before my diagnosis, I thought of ovarian cancer as an “older woman’s disease” — when I thought about it at all. I was 32 years old when I was diagnosed, and ovarian cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.

Women learn about the risks of breast cancer and heart disease, but we’re often undereducated about other threats to our health. If you don’t know you’re at risk, you won’t recognize your symptoms for what they are. Ongoing stomach pains and bloating can signal ovarian cancer, so don’t write these off as normal if they go on for weeks at a time.

3. Find a Physician You Trust

I’m a faith-based person, so I really valued the fact that my physicians were also spiritual. It was comforting to talk to them about the greater plan at work in our lives, especially when I was going through particularly tough times.

Meet with several doctors until you find ones who connect with you. Trust is vital when you’re coping with a cancer diagnosis. You want to work with people who share your worldview and can talk you through the emotional challenges.

4. Visit Your Doctor Regularly

Once you’ve found a physician who resonates with you, stay on top of your routine appointments. Preventive visits create a baseline understanding of your health, making it easier to catch abnormalities. Those checkups also give you an opportunity to become more familiar with your doctor so you won’t hesitate to speak up when you have concerns.

Women struggle to ask for help under the best of circumstances, and there are few situations more intimidating than sitting in a chilly exam room in a paper-thin hospital gown. You’re naked and cold, and you just want to get out of there. Our instincts are to rush through the exam and leave lingering questions for a future visit.

But the time to ask about worrying symptoms is now. You’ll be more inclined to speak up if you’ve developed rapport with your doctor. You should feel 100 percent comfortable saying, “I know this symptom doesn’t sound like anything, but it’s out of the ordinary for me, and I need you to help me through this.”

5. Don’t Wait to Ask About Symptoms

Write down your concerns and questions ahead of your appointment, and make sure to check them all off during the visit. Women keep running lists in our heads, and we want to get through them as quickly as possible. We gloss over issues that have been troubling us, only to get home and think, “Darn, I should have asked about this.”

Unfortunately, if you wait to follow-up until the symptoms worsen, it’s often too late. By that point, you may be talking about advanced ovarian cancer, which is much harder to treat. Get the answers you need sooner rather than later.

6. Lean on Your Nurses

People often overlook nurses, focusing instead on their doctors. But the nurses are the ones who are there with you every day. They support you through chemotherapy, comfort you when you have nausea, pain, or fatigue, and answer the million questions that inevitably arise during treatments. Doctors should be your go-to for specifics on your condition, but nurses are extremely knowledgeable about the day-to-day effects of chemo.

Everyone talks about how difficult a cancer diagnosis is, but you don’t hear about the ongoing fallout as often. Nurse navigators are your best friends when you’re grappling with the realities of having cancer. They understand that chemo slows you down physically and mentally, and that finances may be a worry while you recover.

Your nurse navigators will keep you from becoming overwhelmed while you’re trying to get well. They’ll present your case to the team of doctors involved in your treatment and create a comprehensive plan for managing your care.

7. Face Your Fears

The biggest mental shift I’ve experienced since my diagnosis is that I want to know everything about my health now, even if it’s bad news. Sometimes, when we sense that something’s wrong, we try to put it out of our minds because we’re scared of the outcome.

We say, “I know it’s not going to be good news, so I’m just going to wait. I don’t want to hear it right now.” Having cancer made me realize how dangerous this mentality really is.

Now, I approach my health fears by saying, “You know what? I don’t know what the news is going to be. But I’m going to find out because the earlier I know what’s happening, the more options I have.” Don’t wait until you have cancer to learn the facts. Be inquisitive; learn everything you can about pelvic masses and cancer prevention.

An Empowered Future

Ovarian cancer was a terminal diagnosis in the not-too-distant past because we didn’t have a way to detect it early enough for effective treatment. By the time your symptoms were severe enough to see a doctor, you might already be at stage 4. That’s why I’m so excited about Vermillion’s OVA1 technology. It’s literally changed the game with ovarian cancer. We may not have a cure, but we can catch it sooner.

I’m living proof of how early detection saves lives, and I know how lucky I am to be healthy and cancer-free today. But I’m not leaving my future to luck anymore, and you shouldn’t either. Act on your instincts when something’s not right with your body.

By: Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller is the most decorated gymnast in American history and an ovarian cancer survivor. To read more about her story, continue to check out Know Pelvic Mass, an online resource that arms women with the knowledge they need to take ownership of their gynecologic health.