Advocating for Your Health
- Kathy Morse was 52 when she was diagnosed with vaginal cancer. She’s thankful she spoke up about her symptoms – feeling dizzy when sitting and developing a lump in her vaginal area – when she did.
- Vaginal cancer is a type of gynecological cancer that may not cause any signs and symptoms until it progresses. Signs and symptoms can include unusual vaginal bleeding, watery vaginal discharge, a lump or mass in your vagina, painful urination, frequent urination, constipation or pelvic pain.
- Being your own advocate can be key to getting a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
Morse went to her doctor after she started experiencing a strange dizziness when sitting, but several tests and checks by medical professionals didn’t reveal any cause for concern.Read More
Then, she discovered a painless lump in her vaginal area and swiftly asked for a medical examination.
“I never felt ill. Then, I felt a lump in that area,” she explained. “It wasn’t painful, and I just thought it was cyst that would need removing so I booked to see my doctor.”
That’s when the then 52-year-old mother of two was referred for a biopsy that later revealed her vaginal cancer.
“If I didn’t go through that 15 minutes of embarrassment with my doctor I might not be having this conversation now,” she said. “It’s a very rare form of cancer, and most people I’ve spoken to have never even heard of it.
“I had a full hysterectomy 15 years ago as well so it seemed like I had less chance of developing anything in that region.”
Further testing revealed that Morse’s cancer was stage three. For treatment, she underwent a seven-hour surgery followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“They successfully removed it, but it had already got through my pelvic wall and they took lymph nodes for testing,” Morse said. “It came back that it had spread so I had to go through 25 rounds of radiotherapy and five courses of chemotherapy in the space of five weeks.
“The chemotherapy didn’t really affect me much but I had really bad radiotherapy burn. I’ve had two children and I’ve never felt pain like that before. That was the lowest point for me, but I got through it.”
Now on the other side of her cancer journey, Morse wants to do what she can to encourage others to pay attention to their genital area and speak up when things seem off.
“If I had not gone to the doctors when I did, I really believe I wouldn’t be here now,” she said. “What if I had been too embarrassed to see my GP? If I can help just one person that’s enough… It makes me angry that people find these lumps and they don’t get checked out. I know there are a lot of people that don’t want to go to their smear tests or general gynecological appointments.
“When you have a cancer that is really rare it’s isolating, but why should we feel embarrassed? Deborah James was amazing in raising awareness about bowel cancer and I want to do the same.”
Understanding Vaginal Cancer
Vaginal cancer is a type of gynecological cancer that occurs in the vagina — the muscular tube that connects your uterus with your outer genitals.
This rare cancer is rare, and the average age at the time of diagnosis is 67. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 8,870 new cases of the vagina and other female genital in 2022.
Early vaginal cancer may not cause any signs and symptoms. But as the disease progresses, vaginal cancer may cause signs and symptoms such as:
- Unusual vaginal bleeding, for example, after intercourse or after menopause
- Watery vaginal discharge
- A lump or mass in your vagina
- Painful urination
- Frequent urination
- Pelvic pain
It’s important to note that although these symptoms can be caused by other things, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor should any of them occur.
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.