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Periods And Cancer: How A Missed Period Could Possibly Save Your Life

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Dr Alison Farmer was forty years old when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her symptoms? A bit of mid cyclic bleeding. Her general practitioner told her that it was a common thing and she had nothing to worry about but her medical background made her believe otherwise. She visited a gynaecologist who asked her to do an ultrasound which revealed a 5 cm mass. With surgery and chemotherapy, Alison was able to beat cancer in six months.

I feel it was only my knowledge of medicine that pushed me to get a diagnosis. I suspect a lot of women would have accepted the first assessment that everything was normal.” writes Dr Farmer in this article.

Cancer presents itself with different symptoms but changes in the menstrual cycle often accompany other common symptoms. Lack of awareness could lead to misdiagnosis and result in potentially life-threatening situations. Dr Farmer’s medical background was what convinced her to get a second opinion because of which she was able to get a proper diagnosis. Unfortunately, most women are unaware of the menstruation-related symptoms seen during cancer.

Breast Cancer

While breast cancer is one of the most commonly talked about forms of cancer, it’s symptoms are usually associated with lumps or other changes felt in the breasts. But more often than not, breast cancer symptoms also involve changes in the menstrual cycle. Women who start menstruating younger than age 12 and reach menopause older than 55 are both at a much higher risk of getting breast cancer. Research suggests that this risk is also high for women who have few children or bear children later in life.

Family history plays a very important role in determining whether or not a woman will develop cancer during her lifetime. Barbara got the short end of the stick when it came to this. Coming from a family with a long history of cancer, she was diagnosed with not only breast cancer but also ovarian. Regular checkups, chemo and maintaining a healthy lifestyle helped her beat the illness without recurrence.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer found in Indian women after breast cancer, a population of 436.76 million women aged 15 and older is at risk of developing it in the country. Cervical cancer is hard to detect at early stages as it presents hardly any symptoms. Irregular vaginal bleeding and vaginal discharge are common symptoms that go unnoticed by most menstruators.

It is very important to get regular health checkups done as well as report any menstrual irregularity. Vaginal bleeding that happens mid-cycle or after sex is the most common symptom of cervical cancer. When gone undiagnosed for too long, it’s possible that patients may bleed continuously irrespective of whether they’re on their cycle as in the case of Marissa. While it is important to listen to doctors, it is also important to trust your own body when something’s wrong. Irregular bleeding, lower back pain, fatigue and weight loss are all common issues most women deal with but can also be symptoms of something serious like cancer and must be treated with the same level of importance.

Ovarian Cancer

While the appearance of tumours and cysts on the ovaries are not uncommon, they usually tend to benign (non-cancerous). Cancerous tumours are rare and can be deadly if not dealt with immediately. Amy Allen was 18 years old when she was wrongly diagnosed with PCOS by her gynaecologist after not getting her periods for six months. It was only after a biopsy that she was told she had a rare form of ovarian cancer. She made a full recovery after having her left ovary surgically removed. “Having your ovaries removed has an impact on your femininity in much the same way as having a breast removed,” writes Dr Farmer, who also had to have her ovaries removed.

Only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are detected early. Most women don’t even notice the symptoms until the cancer has reached an advanced stage. It is important to get regular checkups, especially if you have a family history of cancer, to get diagnosed early. Women who have used fertility drugs, had estrogen therapy post-menopause or had their first full-term pregnancy post 35 years of age, are all at a higher risk of getting ovarian cancer.

Uterine Cancer

Brenda, a retired teacher and educator, had already had her menopause when she started experiencing very heavy bleeding. She immediately scheduled an appointment with her doctor. It was in 2003, after a meeting with her doctor that she found out she had uterine cancer. Within a few months post-diagnosis, Brenda was able to completely rid herself of cancer and go back to regular life. Uterine cancer is more common amongst older women, most of whom have already been through menopause. Early diagnosis can help prevent the risk of cancer metastasising and causing even more damage.

Since most women are unaware of how menopause impacts the body, they tend to assume that irregular cycles tend to continue for a while and not get regular check-ups done. This was the mistake Toni made. After a full year of not having periods post-menopause, she started getting her periods again. She assumed this was a common occurrence and didn’t mention the periods to her gynec during her next appointment. By the time she was diagnosed, she’d already reached stage 3 uterine cancer. It is very important for women especially menopausal women, to get regular check-ups as well as report any noticeable changes in their body. It could be potentially life-saving.

Effects Of Chemotherapy On Menstruation 

Cancerous cells are cells that rapidly divide and replicate. Since chemotherapy is geared towards inhibiting such cells from dividing, it comes as no surprise that it would impact the cells of the ovaries that perform a very similar function. During chemo, the number and quality of eggs produced by a woman are significantly lower than normal. It is common for periods to stop completely during the treatment.

Whether periods will restart post-chemo depends on the age, type of drug and the dosage given to the patient. But the return of periods doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman can still have children and the lack of periods doesn’t mean that a woman can’t have children either. It is important to consult with a gynaecologist beforehand so that the patient is well aware of the potential side effects of chemotherapy.

More information on cancer awareness and treatment is available at The Indian Cancer Society.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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