When I heard “I’m sorry, you have cancer; you have a 50/50 chance of living five years,” I began facing one of my biggest challenges. I am a retired nurse and the only thing I knew about ovarian cancer was that it was often fatal.
Ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women (20,000 diagnoses every year) and fifth in cancer deaths of women. Approximately 1 out of 71 women will be diagnosed with this disease; and most frightening of all, 70% of those diagnosed will be in the late stages, which have lower survival rates.
However, we can attempt to lower the death rate by knowing the risk factors and symptoms and acting upon them sooner. Risk factors include:
- Personal or family history of ovarian, breast, uterine, cervical, or colon cancer
- Never been pregnant (however, taking birth control pills for at least 5 years decreases the incidence by 50%)
- BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation
- Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jewish heritage
- Age (increasing risk), especially after menopause
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often described as silent or whispering, because they mimic menopause, menstrual, gastro-intestinal, or back problems. If one or more of these symptoms last more than two weeks, it is recommended a woman be evaluated by her gynecologic physician as soon as possible. Keeping track of symptoms on a calendar or in a diary is valuable for the physician in assessing the patient. The subtle symptoms can be any one, or several, of the following:
- Painful abdomen or pelvic area
- Abdominal bloating
- Mid to lower back pain
- Indigestion or feeling full quickly
- Change in urinary habits
- Change in bowels appearance
- Painful intercourse
It’s now been five years since I received my diagnosis of Stage IIC ovarian cancer. The diagnosis was a complete surprise to me. I had one risk factor and one symptom: My aunt had breast cancer and my abdomen was increasing in size. I was fortunate to see my gynecologist for my annual PAP smear and exam at the time I did. She palpated a mass in my lower left abdomen and immediately ordered a CT scan and referred me to a gynecologic-oncologist.
I had a complete hysterectomy and partial colon resection because the tumor had started to invade my lower colon. The surgery was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy. Except for the cancer, I was very healthy so I tolerated the surgery and chemotherapy relatively well. I lost my hair, was frequently tired, and had drops in my blood counts. Every day I exercised; ate five small nutritious meals; surrounded myself with positivity, laughter, and love; and practiced deep meditation and relaxation exercises. These are coping methods and lifestyle habits I have used all my life when facing difficult challenges.
I now devote my time to helping women learn about this disease and to supporting them and their families wherever they are in their journey. Fortunately, today there are many wonderful organizations, alliances, foundations, and informational books about ovarian cancer.