Everyone knows about breast cancer and lung cancer, and has likely heard about colon cancer, but vaginal cancer? Well, it's just not talked about. And yet, every seven minutes a woman is diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer.
These cancers target the body parts below the belt: the cervix, uterus, ovaries, vulva and vagina. They're parts that don't get discussed often in public, which could be one reason women are shocked to find out their vaginal bleeding after menopause or sex was a sign of something more serious.
Six gynecologic oncologists across the country want to break the silence and eradicate the stigma surrounding GYN cancers by pushing them in the spotlight – literally. In 2008, the surgeons formed a rock band to raise awareness about the diseases that the American Cancer Society estimates will strike 91,730 women this year and cause 28,080 deaths. The goal was to connect the patients and survivors with their music, while also spreading the word to women who don't know they can get cancer "down there."
And it all starts with the band's name: N.E.D., or No Evidence of Disease, a congratulatory phrase doctors often say to patients when they're cancer-free.
"We use those initials all the time," says William Robinson, a professor of gynecologic oncology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, and the band's bass guitar player, who goes by Rusty. "Survivors will get it, or other doctors particularly will get it. And it's kind of a conversation starter. The people who are not associated with cancer don't understand what it means, and they'll ask about it."
N.E.D. originally formed because the doctors were asked to perform just for fun for a one-time show at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology's annual conference. Though they had never played together before, the surgeons proved to be as talented with drumsticks and picks on stage as they are with scalpels in the operating room. They've since taken the band to the next level by producing two albums, "No Evidence of Disease" and "6 Degrees." Despite chaotic operating schedules and a packed caseload of patients, they manage to travel throughout the country for gigs and cancer awareness events.
Their stories, and those of their patients, have been chronicled in a documentary "No Evidence of Disease," which is showing at select theaters this month in honor of Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month.
The raw, emotional film by Emmy award-winner Andrea Kalin brings the statistics to life by featuring women of all ages battling GYN cancers, including a 32-year-old working in New York's fashion district and a mother with a daughter she hopes to one day see graduate college. There's also one teen you don't see, but hear about from N.E.D.'s lead vocalist Joanie Mayer Hope as she drives home from the hospital in the dark. "I just told a 13-year-old she had cancer," she says, visibly upset. "That was my last act as a doctor today."
After finishing her residency at New York University's Langone Medical Center, Hope moved from Brooklyn to Anchorage, Alaska, where she's the only GYN oncologist in the state. (There are about 1,000 in the United States.)
"It's a real honor and challenge to provide care to the women here," Hope told U.S. News in a recent call from Anchorage, adding that N.E.D. has motivated her as a GYN oncologist. "It's been a really great way to connect with patients on an entirely different level and the community members who are trying to put an end to gynecologic cancers."
The band's music isn't all about GYN cancer or patient care – rather, the original songs are based on relationships, life experiences or funny stories. However, the surgeons have written a few songs focused on disease, and patients say they relate to the lyrics – as one song bellows, "Let fear give way to strength/Let hope conquer every sorrow" – which inspires them to continue to fight their cancer.
"I really believe that there is some healing power to music," says lead drummer Nimesh Nagarsheth, "and it has to do with first just healing the mind, and then the mind just healing the body."
At first, Nagarsheth, a GYN oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, admits he was a little concerned patients may find it unprofessional he was in a band, but he couldn't have been more wrong. "Patients just love it, and they're really supportive," he says.
In some ways, their fame in the band has superseded their reputation as doctors, at least on Google.
"Patients are very savvy nowadays, and they'll already know your life story before they even see you," says lead guitarist William Winter, III, a GYN oncologist at Compass Oncology in Portland, Ore. One new patient showed off her knowledge about the band after her first consultation ended. "As we were walking out the door and getting their surgery planned, they look at me and say, 'OK, tell me about N.E.D., tell me about the band, what do you play?'"
[Read: How to Be an Empowered Patient.]
The music hasn't only unified the doctors with their patients. It's also played a central part in accomplishing what they set out to do, which is make some noise about a group of cancers that have largely been ignored.
At the end of the day, Nagarsheth says it comes down to awareness, and that's where their songs come in.
"While we work with patients on a daily basis – and it's very rewarding, and it's a privilege to take care of these patients – ultimately, you're taking care of one patient at a time," he says. "Whereas music can help get the word out to thousands of people at one time, and it really has."
For a list of locations where the N.E.D. documentary will be playing, visit nedthemovie.com. N.E.D.'s next shows are at the Rock For Hope music festival in Raleigh, N.C., Sept. 21 and the National Race To End Women's Cancer Weekend in Washington, D.C., Nov. 2.
For more information about GYN cancers, visit the Foundation for Women's Cancer.