HAMPTON, Va. – A Hampton woman who lost her 87-year-old grandmother to uterine cancer is on a mission to educate post-menopausal women about their increased risk for gynecologic cancers.
“I have an irreparable damage in my heart […] where my grandmother was, and I don’t want anyone to feel that,” said Vanessa Hill, the founder and executive director of Project Nana.
Hill’s grandmother, Merlice Yvonne McIntosh Henderson, hid blood spotting episodes from her family and doctors about a year before her diagnosis. By the time the pain became so unbearable, she was diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer – a cancer doctors say is very treatable in the early stages. Henderson died in 2010 two weeks after her diagnosis, and her husband died days later from complications of a stroke.
“If I knew [she was spotting], I could have convinced her [to seek treatment],” said Hill. “She didn’t have to die.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of diagnosis for most gynecologic cancers is over the age of 60. For example, the average age of diagnosis is 63 for uterine and ovarian cancer; 67 for cancer of the vagina and vulva; and 50 for cervical cancer.
“Post-menopausal women unfortunately sometimes get lost in routine care because they feel […] if they’re not having children any longer, they do not have to see the gynecologist,” said Dr. Keisha Burfoot, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Norfolk. “Sometimes it’s not clear to them from their primary care physician that they should continue to see a gynecologist in the post-menopausal years.”
Dr. Burfoot said post-menopausal women should be seen by a gynecologist or have a routine pelvic exam by their primary care physician about every two years. A lack of pelvic exams and inquiries about reproductive organs after can cause warning signs of cancer to be missed by doctors, leading to late-stage diagnoses once it’s detected.
“Uterine cancer, which is the most common gynecologic cancer, we don’t have a screening test [for it],” said Dr. Burfoot. “So when women come in, if we don’t inquire about if […] they’ve had post-menopausal bleeding, they don’t always volunteer the information.”
Dr. Burfoot said post-menopausal bleeding is usually the first sign that something is wrong in the uterine cavity.
“I will hear a lot of older women saying, oh, I had a period again,” said Dr. Burfoot. “Once you go through menopause, you should never see blood again.”
Hill, determined to educate and save other grandmothers and older women, created Project Nana. The non-profit organization aims to advance health equity for post-menopausal women, and they do it through so-called “Nana Chats,” which are “creative workshops, advocacy, training, research, and community engagement” aimed at reducing late-stage diagnoses of women's cancers and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“We’re in a safe place, and we talk about things in this group that we can’t share otherwise,” said Mary Henderson, a Nana Chat participant and daughter-in-law of Hill’s grandmother.
Project Nana’s message about prevention hit home for Hill last year. Doctors discovered precancerous cells throughout her reproductive organs, and she agreed with their advice to have a hysterectomy.
“It was the hardest [decision], because anybody who knows me, knows I wanted a house full of kids,” said Hill. “I’m still processing it, but what I know is that I don’t have to worry about that cancer messing with me.
Hill’s doctors believe her decision to get ahead of cancer forming saved her life – a life she’s dedicated to honoring her nana by helping to save yours.
“I have a lot of life to live. I have a mission that I need to continue to put on my back,” said Hill. “Every time I say ‘Project Nana’, I’m invoking [my grandmother’s] name.”