Endometrial Cancer Survivor
- Diagnosed with endometrial cancer at age 35
- Cured with total abdominal hysterectomy and brachytherapy
Sonja Thorkildsen has always been heavyset. That’s why she didn’t really think much about it when her monthly menstrual cycles became irregular.
“I’d heard that larger women often lose their periods,” Sonja says. But her periods didn’t disappear—they were erratic and often extremely heavy.
When she wasn’t bleeding there was usually discharge.
This went on for a long time, Sonja says, probably a few years. “I finally went to the doctor when I thought I was hemorrhaging and was feeling really light-headed. It was frightening.”
Sonja took herself to the emergency room where the physicians performed a vaginal ultrasound and detected a tumor. A D&C – dilation and curettage – was performed. A biopsy of the tumor indicated that Sonja had endometrial cancer.
“That doctor told me I needed to find a gynecologic oncologist. I had no idea what that was and found one doctor who couldn’t see me for almost a month. I thought that was too long, so I contacted Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and Dr. Barbara Goff saw me within a week or so and I had surgery the next day.”
On June 16, 2005, Sonja had a total abdominal hysterectomy, which removed her uterus, cervix, and ovaries. She was 35 years old at the time.
“I think one of the reasons I didn’t go to the doctor earlier was because of my size. I felt self-conscious and didn’t want to be judged. My surgery experience at UW Medical Center was great. The nurses were great and took care of everything professionally and matter-of-factly,” Sonja says. “And Dr. Goff is one of the nation’s leading gynecologic oncologists. We are so lucky to have her in Seattle. We live in a great city if you’re sick.”
After surgery, Sonja received three internal radiation therapy treatments, known as brachytherapy. In this procedure radiation is delivered to a tumor site using radioactive material—not X-rays—sealed in a rod that is inserted into the vagina or uterus. “In Sonja’s case,” says Dr. Goff, “ this was given to help prevent the cancer from coming back as she had some high risk features in her cancer.”
After the radiation she required no additional treatments. “I was off for six weeks in total,” Sonja recalls. “The first four I slept a lot. If I had to choose a kind of cancer to get, this was a really easy one to have.”
Dr. Goff prescribed a colonoscopy and mammogram for Sonja, to screen for both breast and colon cancer as women with endometrial cancer are at increased risk for these cancers as well.just to be sure that the cancer wasn’t hiding out in any other part of her body. The surgery put Sonja into early menopause, so she did experience symptoms like hot flashes and moodiness. But, based on recommendations from Dr. Goff, and Sonja’s own personal feelings, she decided against using a hormone replacement therapy and has used natural remedies for her symptoms instead.
Sonja has over a 90 percent chance of cure, according to Dr. Goff. “But had she let it go longer, that wouldn't have been the case,” she said.
“After I had cancer, I did some research and found that heavier women are more prone to getting endometrial cancer, which is linked to high estrogen levels. Heavier women have higher levels of estrogen apparently because it gets stored in body fat,” Sonja says, whose family history includes prostate and bladder cancer, but no other cancers.
In fact, women who are only 50 pounds overweight have 10 times the chance of developing endometrial cancer than those at healthy weights.
Having cancer opened her eyes to taking care of herself, Sonja says. “No one can do it but me.”
She now exercises regularly and tries to eat right. Her garden is filled with thriving tomato plants and her dining room is home to a treadmill and exercise ball.
“The whole thing is that I was afraid of knowing what was wrong with me,” she says. “But finding out was so much better – more concrete because then I had a plan to take care of it.” If you have a problem, Sonja recommends facing it and not being afraid, because there’s a chance that what you find might be nothing serious at all.