September 03, 2021
Cancer surgeon and researcher: My pre-cancer diagnosis gave me a new perspective
BY Jennifer Wargo, M.D.
As a cancer surgeon and researcher, I’ve poured my heart and soul into making a difference for patients over the past 20 years. Recently, though, the tables were turned, and I found myself facing a major health crisis and potential cancer diagnosis myself.
Thanks to my amazing MD Anderson colleagues, I’m healthy again, with a fresh perspective, passion for life and whole new level of commitment to ending cancer.
Gynecologic cancer symptoms were a wake-up call to prioritize my health
In spring 2021, I considered myself a healthy 51-year-old mother to three adorable young kids, melanoma surgical oncologist, principal investigator of my own research lab, co-leader of the Melanoma Moon Shot® and director of MD Anderson’s Program for Innovative Microbiome and Translational Research.
When I first started to have heavy uterine bleeding, I chalked it up to menopause. As it got worse, I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I knew my symptoms could be a sign of cancer, and I was terrified.
My mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 15 years earlier, after presenting with non-specific symptoms. She lost her life to cancer within just a few months of her diagnosis. I was worried that I’d neglected my own health. I had prioritized my family and patients over my own health over the past several years.
Thankfully, my good friend and colleague Shannon Westin, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at MD Anderson, was able to help.
My fear as a first-time patient
When my endometrial biopsy in MD Anderson’s Undiagnosed Gynecology Clinic showed abnormal results, Dr. Westin recommend a dilation and curettage (D&C) biopsy in the operating room. As a cancer surgeon, the thought of a trip to the OR was a bit daunting to me, but Dr. Westin put my mind at ease by assembling an outstanding team of providers.
And though I sailed smoothly through the procedure, the pathology results showed complex atypical endometrial hyperplasia. This is a precancerous condition that carries up to a 40% risk of invasive cancer in the remaining endometrium, which lines the uterus. Endometrial cancer is one of the most common cancers in women. It’s increasingly being diagnosed in women of younger ages.
Based on this risk, my care team and I made the decision to return to the OR a few weeks later for a total hysterectomy. I had seen firsthand the devastating impact that cancer can cause for my patients and their families, as well as the impact that it had on my own family during my mother’s battle with cancer. So, I was overwhelmed with the possible outcomes that this diagnosis could have on my own family, my patients and all of those whose lives I touch.
I used the weeks before surgery to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. I’m profoundly thankful to my friends within and outside of the MD Anderson community who stepped up to help me prepare for being out for several weeks by providing meals, covering my clinic schedule, keeping my research projects running, and – most importantly – listening to me and talking me down when needed.
I am grateful that we caught the pre-cancerous cells early
In June 2021, I returned to the OR with my rock star team, with the addition of another outstanding gynecologic oncologist Pamela Soliman, M.D., and anesthesiologist Acsa (Mary) Zavala M.D. As a physician-scientist, I was deeply involved in the preoperative planning. It was important to me to contribute my tissue for research, including MD Anderson’s Pre-Cancer Atlas Project, which is working to prevent more cancers by building a better understanding of how the immune system contributes to the cancer development.
Thankfully, the pathology results from my hysterectomy found only pre-cancerous cells, with no evidence of invasive cancer. I could finally breathe a big sigh of relief that my condition was caught and treated before it turned into cancer.
Finding courage, compassion and a renewed commitment to cancer research and MD Anderson
Even though I’ve devoted my entire career to cancer care and research, being on the other side has opened my eyes in a new way to what an amazing place MD Anderson is. Every day I’m here is truly a gift. I’m dedicated to sharing my story to help raise awareness for gynecologic cancers, which lack the same level of awareness and funding that some other cancer types have.
I’m also expanding my research collaborations with my gynecologic oncology colleagues. One of the exciting things about working with MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program® is that it encourages team science and working across cancer types. Much of my research focuses on melanoma, though I have the honor of working with many other investigators across MD Anderson to better understand how to treat, and ultimately prevent, other cancers. I have a wide variety of projects studying how different factors – everything from the microbiome to B cells to hormones – affect how well patients respond to treatment. I’ve learned that my colleagues have similar data for endometrial cancer, and now we’re working together to see if we can make more progress for more patients by learning from different cancer types at the same time.
I’m eternally grateful to everyone at MD Anderson who helped save my life. In relying on my friends and family for support, I’ve learned to embrace my own vulnerability. It’s made me more courageous and compassionate – and more committed than ever to Making Cancer History®.
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TopicsMelanoma Research Uterine Cancer
Every day I’m here is truly a gift.
Jennifer Wargo, M.D.
Physician & Researcher