Ovarian Cancer (OC). For the past week, it’s been trending due to actress/director Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she’d recently undergone a preventive surgical procedure because of a pre-cancer scare. Because of this and her family history (mother and grandmother died from OC*) along with having the BRAC-1 gene, Jolie decided on the elective removal of her ovaries (oopherectomy) and fallopian tubes was the best course of action. Now her chances of ever being diagnosed with OC have plummeted by 80-90%**.
It’s certainly a proactive approach and one we applaud her for, but what about all those out there who know nothing about OC?
According to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, OC is the 11th most common cancer among women, it is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women, and is the deadliest of gynecologic cancers.***
Because it’s a deep belly cancer, it is harder to detect, but it’s not impossible if you know what to look for.
Here are a few ways you can inform yourself about the symptoms of OC and what to do if you suspect something’s up
Get tested. If any woman in your family (sisters, mom, grandmothers, aunts, daughters) has been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, get tested for the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes. Women with these genes are more likely to develop breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Understand not all breast cancers are genetic so if you come up negative for either of these genes, that doesn’t mean you should avoid annual mammograms or monthly breast-self exams. Along with that, not all ovarian cancers are linked to breast cancers.
Many insurance providers will cover for genetic testing, especially with a strong family history of the disease.
Give me a BEAT— Once called the silent killer because of its lack of obvious symptoms, OC can be hard to detect, but it’s far from quiet. Just remember 12-BEAT.
E-Eating, feeling full sooner than normal;
T-Trouble with urination or bowels (poop)
Additional concerns can include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. Although these symptoms sound rather simple and we’ve all had them from time to time, the parameters of concern start when you have these symptoms more than 12 times during the course of one month. Also if the symptoms are new or unusual for you, contact your gynecologist.
Who you calling old? If anyone tells you OC is an “old lady’s disease”, they’re full of it. Ovarian cancer has been diagnosed in pre-pubescent girls all the way to women in their nineties. The average age of new ovarian cancer patients is 63 years (not old as far as we’re concerned), that means half of the new cases are women younger than that. If you have concerning symptoms and a physician tells you you’re too young for OC, you might want to consider finding another doctor.
Surgical Intervention—Like a woman having her breasts removed greatly decreases the chances of having breast cancer, undergoing removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes (where many cases of OC begins) decreases a woman’s chance of developing OC down to 1-3%. Because the pelvic area can still include some of the epithelium, the same tissue that covers the ovaries, having OC is still possible, but a whole lot less likely with the ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
Rule of Three—If you suspect OC, there are a few tests/exams you can have to help rule it out. First, a physical/pelvic exam by your gynecologist. Be sure to explain symptoms and concerns.
Second, a trans-vaginal ultrasound can help visualize internal organs and possibly see something too small to palpate.
Third, a CA-125 blood test can also detect many, not all, forms of OC. Know there is much debate on whether this test is useful for women with an average risk of developing OC.
You have to be an advocate for your own health. If you have new or unusual symptoms that persist, keep a journal, write down what makes it worse or better so you have a specific list to hand to your health care practitioner.
For more questions or information about OC, be sure and talk to your doctor, nurse, or organizations such as the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
By Seana Roubinek and Patricia W. Fischer
left to right Seana and Patricia
Seana Roubinek is a 2-time ovarian cancer survivor. Upon finishing chemotherapy the first time and there was no evidence of disease, she was left with that “What do I now?” feeling. She attended her first Ovarian Cancer National Alliance annual conference and discovered she had a passion for advocacy – both at the legislative level and through OCNA’s signature program Survivors Teaching Students (r) which involves speaking with 3rd year medical students and nursing students about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. After her 2nd bout with ovarian cancer, she decided to extend her advocacy efforts to include research and will be a representative of the ovarian cancer community at the American Association of Cancer Research annual conference in Philadelphia this April.
Patricia W. Fischer is an award-winning romance writer, health journalist, and former trauma nurse. She’s written for multiple publications including American Journal of Nursing, Nurse Week, iVillage, Hot Mom’s Club, Modern Mom, and Dallas Child. She’s a mom of four and has two contemporary romance series out.
Since 1967, Seana and Patricia have been best friends. They were introduced to each other when they were put in the same crib while their parents played bridge. They blog together about the two sides of cancer on a site called Candid About Cancer.
They have future plans to be the two crazy cat ladies at the end of the street who yell at kids who walk across their lawns.