An Endometrial Cancer Survivor's Words of Wisdomby Stephanie Stephens Health Writer
When Sonia Thornton was 38, her periods gradually began getting heavier. Sonia, a teacher in Philadelphia, saw one doctor who didn't seem worried. After all, the average age of a woman with endometrial cancer, the most common type of uterine cancer, is 60.
Just to be sure, a second doctor Sonia saw opted to do a biopsy. That’s when she got the news: Sonia did, in fact, have endometrial cancer. "I was shocked to hear it," she told HealthCentral in a telephone interview.
Facts About Endometrial Cancer
Sonia is one of tens of thousands of women diagnosed with endometrial cancer, a type of cancer affecting the lining of the uterus, each year. In fact, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says endometrial cancer is the most common invasive cancer of the female reproductive system.
Incidences and number of deaths due to this cancer are increasing, albeit slightly, in both white and African American female populations, according to the NCI. You’re more at risk if you take estrogen or tamoxifen; have endometrial hyperplasia (diagnosed via biopsy); are obese or overweight; have metabolic syndrome or diabetes; or have certain genetic factors.
After Sonia’s diagnosis, she was forced to examine her own risk factors.
Family History: A Risk Factor That Hits Close to Home
Sonia thought about how her mother had the same cancer diagnosed during her postmenopausal years, in her mid-50s. Her mom had unusual bleeding and soon underwent a hysterectomy to completely remove any trace of the cancer, which fortunately hadn't metastasized.
"I worried about telling my family, so I told my brother first, then my mom,” Sonia says. “Both gave me so much support.” Sonia also has four sons, ages 16, 13, 12 and 8; she told each son separately, to focus on and comfort each.
Sonia’s First Surgery for Endometrial Cancer
"It was new, going to appointments and going through my first surgery," says Sonia, a patient of Christina Chu, M.D. at Fox Chase Cancer Center. In early February 2017, Sonia had her first discussions about that surgery — a hysterectomy.
"The doctor explained that she'd assess my ovaries during surgery to determine if they needed to be removed. I had surgery on Feb. 21, and because my ovaries had scar tissue, [Dr. Chu] did remove them, along with an 8-centimeter tumor in the endometrial lining.”
What Genetic Testing Revealed
Genetic testing found that Sonia had Lynch syndrome or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), an inherited disorder that increases the risk of many types of cancer. These include a significantly increased for colorectal cancer, as well as increased risk for endometrial (uterine), stomach, breast, ovarian, small bowel (intestinal), pancreatic, prostate, urinary tract, liver, kidney, and bile duct cancers.
Endometrial Cancer Recovery: Tougher Than Anticipated
Any time a person undergoes a procedure, they wonder what it will be like, and they hope for the best. "I always thought I'd bounce right back and be fine," Sonia says. "I wasn't [fine] immediately, and not only because a surgery like that is hard, but not having hormones and going into menopause instantly after I woke up was really hard.”
“I thought I'd be back to work in four weeks, but it took seven, mainly because of fatigue and the effects of the menopause."
Returning to Physical Activity After Cancer Treatment
Sonia says she's always gone to the gym regularly and has been an avid walker and jogger. "It took a long time to be able to do that again, and I did take things slowly,” she says. “I remember three weeks after surgery, walking to pick up the young ones at school — I was more tired than I've ever been.”
But Sonia is working to build her strength back up, through strength training and other activities. “I play basketball with my sons, mostly in summer — I love doing family things, and with the two cats, dog, and fish."
Ask for Help and Accept It
Don't try to be a lone warrior, says Sonia. If you’re in a similar boat, acknowledge that you've had cancer and you've had a procedure.
"Let people take care of you if they offer it," she says. "They may do simple things like getting you a meal, helping around the house, and even just sitting and talking to you, especially after surgery — it's so comforting." It’s true: Everyone needs a little empathy and support during challenging times.
For Some, Treatment Extends Beyond Surgery
Sonia considers herself fortunate. "Surgery was all I needed, even though when I heard the size of my tumor, I was worried that I might have to have chemo and radiation next. Knowing that the cancer hadn't spread was a huge relief, and I was lucky I didn't have to have those treatments.”
That’s why it’s key to pay close attention to your body, she says. “It's so important to be aware of symptoms and to find any cancer as early as possible."
Concern About the Future
Since Lynch syndrome is hereditary, she worries it may have been passed to one of her sons.
"One of the brothers tested and was negative, and the other two haven't been tested," Sonia says. "The geneticist said she recommends waiting until my sons are adults. Our family has had quite a bit of colon cancer, but no one in their 20s. I am OK waiting until they are adults to get their results."
Meanwhile, Sonia sees her oncologist every three months, and right now, "everything is looking good," she says. "I have no symptoms, either." She’s grateful for her good health and for the wonderful care she received.
Know the Symptoms
Sonia’s story is one that resonates with many women who have had endometrial cancer. Get to know the symptoms of endometrial cancer; if you notice something off, don’t delay — talk to your doctor. Your life could depend on it.