Even though Jennifer Wargo has built a career about finding and eliminating cancer, she wasn't prepared for her diagnosis. “It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster,” she said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 17, 2021. It has since been updated.
No two bodies are the same, and menopause - the symptoms may differ from person to person, So, when Dr. Jennifer Wargo— who has spent a huge chunk of her career in cancer research and treatment— noticed irregular bleeding, she thought it was just part of menopause, according to TODAY.
She was perimenopausal and women sometimes experience some spotting or irregular periods as they transition into menopause. “I have been busy working, treating patients with cancer, doing research, and taking care of the kids and started to have symptoms,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Maybe this is just normal menopause.’”
She thought it would stop soon, but it just didn't. As the bleeding became heavier and she started passing clots, Wargo realized that this was not normal. She was losing a lot of blood, and it was affecting her health, as well. “I just had a sense that there was something wrong,” she said.
But, her research and references kicked in, prompting her to discuss this with her colleagues. What’s more, she knew that bleeding in menopause can be a “real warning sign.” Thanks to her decision to do so, they discovered that Wargo had precancerous cells, which they treated immediately.
“I had uterine bleeding. Do I really want to broadcast this?” Wargo, a melanoma surgical oncologist, asked herself. “I actually did because people need to know about this and because not only are people not aware about it — brushing this off as normal menopause and not getting treated — there’s also a lack of funding to study this.”
“If you’ve already gone through menopause and you’re spotting, that’s a dangerous sign,” Wargo said. “Women need to go see their doctor. They need to get an exam and they really need to pay attention to that.”
Wargo knows, better than anyone, the importance of early detection. Her mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months after. “I reached out to a friend of mine who is a surgeon,” Wargo explained. “She took me on as a patient, did the biopsy in the office. It didn’t really look that ominous but then she said, ‘You know just to be on the safe side, let’s bring you into the operating room.’”
After the procedure, she found out that she had atypical endometrial hyperplasia, a condition where the uterus's lining thickens, causing abnormal bleeding.
Sure, it's not cancerous, but it can lead to an increased risk of endometrial and uterine cancers. Since Wargo didn't want to take any risks, she opted for a total hysterectomy, and during the surgery, her doctor only found precancerous cells. She still visits her doctor every six months to make sure there’s no sign of precancerous or cancerous growths.
“That’s the thing about this type of condition, either precancerous or early cancer, if you catch it early you can be cured with surgery,” she said.
Even though Wargo has built a career about finding and eliminating cancer, she wasn't prepared for her diagnosis. “It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster,” she said. “Here, I am a cancer surgeon, a cancer researcher at the No. 1 cancer center, facing cancer myself. It was really terrifying with three young children and that thought of what happens if something happens during the surgery, or I do have advanced cancer? How do I prepare for that?”
However, she hopes that her story will convince more people to go to their doctor to get things checked out, just to make sure everything is okay. “People shouldn’t be afraid. I can tell you that I was terrified, absolutely, because of what I have seen with my mom, what I have seen with my patients,” Wargo said. “I was absolutely terrified, but I was also really fueled by knowing that I needed to do something because if I waited it could have been far worse.”
Cover Image Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center