‘We are not invisible’: Post-menopausal women invited to health summit

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Some women often feel dismissed by doctors post-menopause.

Project Nana is a Hampton Roads based nonprofit committed to empowering women over 55 years old.

From Sept. 8 to Sept. 10, the organization will host the 2023 Seasoned Women’s Health Summit. 

The 3-day summit will: 

On Sunday, Sept. 10 there is the ‘Walk to end breast and gynecologic cancers’.

Vanessa Hill created the organization in honor of her Nana, Merlice Yvonne McIntosh Henderson.

“She taught me how to read when I was three,” Hill said. “My mother has letters I wrote to here when I was four. As I got older, I could tell her anything! It may not have been her experience but there was nothing that I could say that could damage our relationship. She was a safe space. She’d live vicariously through my journeys, or adventures and she’d just laugh,” Hill said.

The closeness between Hill, her mom and her Nana helped Hill recognize when something wasn’t right.

“I knew she had problems going to the restroom,” Hill said.

Although Nana was going to the doctor and oncologist regularly, as a breast cancer survivor, she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer. 

“The reason why she couldn’t go to the restroom was because the tumor had sealed part of her bowel,” Hill said. “I wanted to come back but Nana said ‘We finish our work! Finish your work and then you come. I would call every day, thinking I should disobey her? I was torn but I finished what I needed to do.”

Nana died Sept. 30, 2010. Just two weeks after the diagnosis.

“Anger really kind of rearranged who I was – I believe God gave me a mission at that point,” Hill said. “Anger was a fuel. I’m grateful for it because it has really sustained me, I’m just getting over the anger right now but it was a decision to create Project Nana.”

Project Nana works to empower what it calls ‘”seasoned women” by sharing information about gynecologic health and cancer awareness. 

“Knowledge is potential power. You have to use it and you have to advocate, educate and agitate to really be useful,” she said.

The 501(c)(3) hopes to challenge misleading recommendations, such as women over 65 or post-menopause do not need to get checked regularly. 

“A pap smear is the only screening for the five gynecologic cancers,” Hill said. “The mean age for gynecologic is 62. It is not a younger person’s disease by stretch of the imagination.”

Vanessa Turner tells 10 On Your Side she had to advocate for herself after she felt dismissed by her OBGYN of 30 years.

“When I would say I’m having this problem or that problem, he would say, ‘Oh, that’s a part of getting old.’ I got to the point where I felt like he wasn’t even listening to me,” Turner said. “So, I decided to move on.”

Turner changed doctors and requested an annual pap smear.

“I was told that I didn’t need one [an annual pap smear] after I reached 55 and I didn’t think that that was right,” Turner said. “I fought for it. I asked my the doctor to give me a pap and to check me out every year. I fought for myself.”

Then, in 2022 she was diagnosed with stage III uterine cancer at 60 years old.

“It was devastating. It really was. I had no idea that this would happen to me,” Turner said. 

She credits her husband and prayers from her First Baptist Church of Norfolk family for helping her through the treatments.

“I had a great support system,” Turner said.

OBGYN Dr. Mary Ojo-Carons believes all women need vaginal exams regardless of age.

“As long as you are blessed with life, you should be having someone assess your vagina, access the walls of the vagina, the tissue, the quality of tissue, so on and so forth,” Carons said. “It is not a true statement to tell a woman, ‘once you stop having your periods you don’t need to have pelvic exams.'”

Ojo-Carons also hopes to end ageism in medicine.

“Ageism needs to stop because there is longevity of life,” Ojo-Carons said. “Women who are post-menopausal who are no longer menstruating, should have the right to a gynecological exam. Having agency over your own body is really important. You are your best advocate. You are the one who knows your body in and out.

“If something is not right, continue to knock the door down of the provider until somebody listens to you. It becomes frustrating to be turned away, but don’t let that turn prevent you from saying ‘I need someone to take a look at me. I need someone to pay attention to me. I need someone to hear me’ because that being persistent may actually save your life.”

Ojo-Carons will join Project Nana to encourage other women to listen to their body and demand additional testing if you notice changes.

“Bleeding as a post-menopausal woman is not a period,” Ojo-Carons said. “It is abnormal. If you have brown discharged that constitutes as bleeding it can be blood. If you have an off-colored vaginal discharge as a post-menopausal woman, see a gynecologist. That is not normal.

“Put yourself first. You are very important. Yes, there are a lot of people that rely on you, but you also rely on you to put yourself first! Make your regular appointments.”

The deadline for the 2023 Seasoned Women’s Health Summit is Friday, August 18.