September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. I want to make sure that all women understand that this is a serious, yet treatable cancer. However, early detection is key to survival. Ovarian cancer isn’t as high profile as breast cancer, yet it is one of the deadliest cancers effecting women. The World Health Organization estimates that over 238,000 cases are diagnosed annually with 152,000 deaths annually. Even though it’s highly treatable, death usually occurs because the disease isn’t caught in the early stages. I could very much be a statistic right now. I didn’t have any awareness of ovarian cancer nor do I have a family history of this kind of cancer. I just knew something wasn’t right.
I was diagnosed the first time at 23, which is 40 years younger than the median age. So don’t think this is only a cancer that threatens older women or post-menopausal women. My symptoms were bloating, abdominal pain and having to pee all the time. I went to my gynecologist and shared my symptoms. The doctor examined me and performed routine tests. She could find nothing wrong. She also did not recommend an ultrasound. What really blows my mind is that I could feel something on my left lower abdomen. I was really thin at the time, and it was almost obvious that my left side more pronounced than the right. Had I just kept going then who knows what might have happened. Instead I went to an urologist, thinking there was a problem with that area. The urologist performed an ultrasound immediately and found the tumor. He was in the same building as my gynecologist. He called them and told them they needed to see me immediately. I had another ultrasound and was in surgery days later. On the day of my surgery, I saw the urologist in the pre-op area and thanked him again. He probably saved my life.
However, most women probably don’t have a tumor the size of a football; it was so big and putting so much pressure on my bladder, that’s why I couldn’t stay out of the bathroom. There is no actual “screen” to diagnose ovarian cancer. A CA-125 blood test is about the best non-invasive diagnostic tool. There are multiple types and stages of ovarian cancer. It can also recur. And just because you don’t have ovaries or a uterus doesn’t mean, you’re in the clear. I had a hysterectomy after my third recurrence, but the cancer cells had spread to my lymph nodes. The type of cancer I had is very slow growing with general consensus being that chemo doesn’t help so I have to keep living with the possibility of recurrence, now most likely in the abdominal area. I still see my oncologist regularly and have CT scans. The type I had is also very rare. To help continue research, I agreed to donate tissue from my first two surgeries.
So how can you protect yourself? If you have a family history, there is a gene known to be a carrier so there is the option to undergo genetic testing. Many have no symptoms and depending on your overall health and age, this might not even be on your gynecologist’s radar. So keep it on yours! Also, Pap smears have nothing to do with ovarian cancer; they screen for cervical cancer.
Here are three things you can do:
1. See a gynecologist for an annual exam.
2. Pay attention to your body.
3. Ask your Doctor questions about ovarian cancer and what he or she recommends.
Learn more at www.ovarian.org.