By: Debby Donovan – Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Florida
My cousin gifted to me an incredible piece of jewelry that had been made for her mother many years prior. The focal point of the necklace of turquoise beads is a 4-inch long antique Doctor’s Lady, which is an elegantly carved figure of a nude Asian female. It’s beautiful and never fails to illicit comment when worn. However, the piece has come to symbolize something more significant these days than a fond memory of a relative.
A few years ago I overcame a surprise diagnosis and successful treatment for uterine cancer. When I look at my Doctors Lady today I can’t help but think of its original intent and wonder why such reticence still exits about raising awareness about good gynecologic health. The Doctor’s Lady can be traced back to the Ming period when the repression to free expression in Asia was at its highest. Chinese medicine men kept such figures in their kits to allow a woman to modestly pinpoint the location of discomfort without showing or pointing to her own body. It just wasn’t possible to speak or act in such familiar terms even to a healer. Although society has come a long way since such practice, the line of demarcation for proactive health education for women seems to exist at the navel and anything below is still often deemed too “sensitive” to openly discuss.
Too many women and girls continue to die unnecessarily because they don’t know enough about their own bodies or the risks associated with gynecologic cancers. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it either prior to my diagnosis and that’s my point. This issue has yet to get on everyone’s radar and it’s this lack of knowledge, the preponderance of misinformation and social stigma that continues to put women and girls of all ages at risk:
of the five gynecologic cancers most often diagnosed, only one has a diagnostic test at the time; a Pap smear only detects cervical cancer,
- ovarian, uterine, vulvar and vaginal cancers can only be detected through regular pelvic or pelvic/rectal exams,
- because gynecologic cancer symptoms may be subtle or similar to other conditions, seeing a gynecologic oncologist may be postponed and critical time is lost between accurate diagnosis and treatment minimizing survival rates,
- a hysterectomy does not protect you from gynecologic cancers.
A successful precedent has already been established by the breast health movement that should be a model for bringing about greater awareness for gynecologic health. Courageous survivors, along with their loved ones and support groups, joined forces to enact change when everyone grew weary of losing the women they loved. Sensitivity to speaking openly about breast health has long since passed. Whether you prefer to sport a demure lapel pin or wear a bright pink wrist band declaring “I Love Boobies,” it’s not only socially acceptable, but a call to arms for women and girls to get smart and become their own best health care advocate. We’ve already learned the value of how talking about breast health has empowered others to become proactive and that has translated into more lives saved.
I’m suggesting that critically important life-saving information seems the very least we can do to protect ourselves from gynecologic cancers. Again, there are no diagnostic tests for 4 out of 5 of them so the best defense we have at this time is information. Any hesitance to use every means possible to educate ourselves only adds to the death rate from these gruesome diseases. The time to empower women and girls of all ages is now, and in order to do that we have to educate them, and in order to educate them we have to talk about this. This isn’t icky or nasty, it’s necessary!
Certainly society has come far enough along to relegate the world’s collection of Doctor’s Ladies to adornment and decoration over diagnostic tools.
Debby Donovan is the Communications Manager for the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Florida and is a uterine cancer survivor. To find out more go to the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Florida’s website at www.ofac.org, or call 407-339-0024 if you want to find out how to help yourself and others.