Submitted by Cancer Treatment Centers of America and published with permission.
Gender roles, biological differences, childhood experiences: The great divide between the sexes is often much more than skin deep. The world of cancer is just one area where the difference can be pronounced. Consider the numbers: According to the American Cancer Society, one in three women will get cancer in her lifetime, while the same is true for one in two men. Men and women also experience cancer’s impact differently, from the side effects they deal with, to the decisions they make about their care, even the type of cancers impacting their health.
Certain brain cancers, thyroid tumors and gallbladder cancer, for example, are more common in women than in men, perhaps because of hormonal or lifestyle differences, scientists believe. Then there are cancers of the female reproductive system, such as vaginal, uterine, ovarian, vulvar or cervical cancer, which may affect a woman’s self-image, her sense of femininity, her childbearing options and her sex drive or ability to be intimate with her life partner. For these and many other reasons, experts say, it is critical for patients to find an oncology team that understands women’s unique cancer experience and craft a personalized treatment plan accordingly.
For single mother and cervical cancer patient Stephanie Beach, that meant protecting her fertility. When complications from a hysterectomy claimed one of her ovaries, Beach was determined not to let the disease impair her ability to have more children. In an effort to preserve her reproductive system, Dr. Lanceford Chong, Chief of Radiation Oncology Program Development at our Phoenix-area hospital, recommended a targeted cervical cancer treatment regimen to reduce the amount of radiation to her ovary.
Suzanne Thompson, a wife and mother of two, learned she had cancer after a routine exam. After seeking a second opinion at our Tulsa hospital, genetic testing and pathology results confirmed Thompson had a genetic predisposition to certain cancers, and Stage III endometrial cancer that had spread to her ovary. She felt comfortable with the treatment plan her doctors recommended, even though it came with disruptive side effects, including intimacy issues caused by radiation treatments to her pelvis. Thompson’s care team recommended a program designed to help women address physical and emotional challenges that make it difficult for them to be intimate with their partners. She says she and her husband have since resumed a healthy sex life.
Many women find that the physical challenges are only half the battle in dealing with cancer-related side effects. The emotional impact adds a whole other dimension. Some, for example, struggle with self-esteem and body image issues after a mastectomy, lymphedema or hair loss leaves them feeling less attractive or desirable. Some cancer treatments may also cause fatigue, loss of libido and emotional and psychological issues. During treatment, Kim Couch wasn’t just worried about her ability to have children; she was also grappling with the loss of her breasts, hair and eyelashes, the attributes that made her feel like a woman. In addition to pursuing breast reconstruction surgery after her mastectomy, Couch wore a wig until her hair grew back. It was a slight change that made a big difference, she says. “When you’re a girl, your hair’s important to you,” Couch says.
For many mothers, one of the most difficult hurdles is telling their children about the cancer. To ease the impact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends mothers plan what to say to their children ahead of time, keeping it simple with kids under 8 years old. Regardless of age, the ACS says mothers should be open with their children about their cancer type, how it will be treated and how it may impact the entire family. That first conversation should be the beginning of an ongoing, open-ended dialogue that encourages children to share their questions, fears and feelings throughout the family’s cancer journey. Family and individual counseling may also help.
No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.
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Cindy Chafin, M.Ed., MCHES is new to NOU, serving as project director for NOU and the Women Survivors Alliance since December 2015. Cindy has been involved in multiple cancer activities and projects since 2000 and is excited to include articles from our many NOU contributors. Please e-mail Cindy if you would like to be considered as a NOU contributor. Professional writers are welcomed, though being a professional writer is NOT a requirement! The magazine is FOR survivors BY survivors, so let us hear from you!