Most doctors subscribe to the philosophy that, if you hear galloping hooves, don't look for zebra because it's probably a horse. But what this means is that medically if you happen to be a “zebra” — as I was — you're at high risk of slipping through the cracks.
In my case, I had uterine cancer, but typically three out of four women who have uterine cancer are post-menopausal or obese. I was neither, so I slipped through the cracks. I was misdiagnosed for a perimenopausal condition that I didn't have, and thus I wasn't given an in-office endometrial biopsy that would have discovered the cancer when I first experienced symptoms. Instead, I was put on four different hormone replacement therapies, the last one of which nearly killed me because it had estrogen in it, which was like taking poison for my particular condition.
It took me two years and eight doctors to get a proper diagnosis.
Women's cancers tend to mimic far more benign illnesses at their earliest, more curable "whisper stage."
My case isn't atypical: Women's cancers tend to mimic far more benign illnesses at their earliest, more curable "whisper stage." For instance, women that have ovarian cancer — which is far more aggressive than uterine cancer — are really at risk of misdiagnosis because, at their cancer's earliest and most curable stage, it looks just like irritable bowel syndrome. And, very often, those women will see and then be misdiagnosed by a gastroenterologist because the symptoms don't seem gynecological. As a consequence of that, 85 percent of women with ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the later stages. Of the 59 percent of women who won't be diagnosed until the cancer has metastasized, over 70 percent of them will die within five years.
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By comparison, the 15 percent of women who are diagnosed in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer have a 5-year survival rate of 93 percent.
This is why, through the Cancer Schmancer movement, we teach people that they need to recognize the early warning whispers of the cancer that may affect you and, when you feel like something is not right but it's still easy to ignore or deny. That is exactly the time to go see a doctor. We try and reprogram people to say, This could be nothing, but it could also be something, so instead of ignoring it because I am too busy dealing with daily life, my family and work, I'm going to check it out so that, if it is something concerning, I can catch it in the whisper state when it is most curable. The whisper stage is the time when it's easiest for someone to deny that they have something wrong, but discovering cancer at that stage makes it so much more likely that they can stay alive and well for their families.
Don't squander money on frivolous things, and then become penny wise when it comes to your health.
And then do your due diligence. Go online: There's a wealth of information available now from reputable medical organizations and you can look up a myriad of symptoms and see if you need to get a second opinion or a third. You may need to advocate for yourself, too, because the test that you need may not even be at the menu at the doctor's office, or it might not be something that your insurance company covers.
What I tell people is: Don't squander money on frivolous things, and then become penny wise when it comes to your health. Switch that logic around: Paying for health care should come first. Don't agonize about spending money on your health insurance, or draining your Christmas savings account to pay for a test your insurance doesn't want to cover. Early detection makes a marked difference in how you can survive cancer and get on with living a healthy, full and long life. The best gift you can give your friends and family is to keep being here for Christmas.
The cost of health care, and of getting preventative care and enabling early detection, is why I believe that we all have to support Obamacare and people need to sign up for it. Ultimately, the more a nation gets behind a socialized medicine program, the more the nation pivots into a preventative consciousness. Our country is not there right now, and it shows.
Early detection makes a marked difference in how you can survive cancer and get on with living a healthy, full and long life.
The World Health Organization ranked us 37th in the world in health care outcomes, despite spending more money on health care (as a percentage of GDP) than any other country in the world. The Commonwealth Fund, which looks at the 11 richest countries in the world, ranks us dead last on health care outcomes, even though we spend far more on it (as a percentage of GDP) than every single other nation. We are the United States, and it is absolutely pathetic that we spend all this money and have worse outcomes than any other wealthy country in the world.
Groups like Cancer Schmancer can help transform patients into medical consumers and help them become better partners with their physicians. Knowledge is power! The more we learn more about our health and how our lifestyle impacts it, hopefully everyone will get sick less and be diagnosed at the earliest stages. But, really, the problem is much larger than just early detection. How we live equals how we feel. The Cancer Schmacer "Detox Your Home" program helps Americans live more toxin-free, carcinogen-free lives and, when practiced, can reduce the risk of disease.
Let's not get cancer in the first place. How's that for a cure?
As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.
Fran Drescher is an actor, writer, director, producer, New York Times bestselling author and the founder and president of the educational charity Cancer Schmancer.