Ovarian cancer becoming less of a ‘silent killer’
September 15, 2009
By David Hayes
Lisa Thompson always considered herself rather healthy. Then, three years ago, the 40-year-old’s world was turned upside down when she learned the results of her exam after complaining about what seemed innocuous discomfort symptoms — stage three ovarian cancer.
“I was in complete shock and disbelief,” she said.
Historically, ovarian cancer has been called the “silent killer,” because symptoms were thought to develop too late in time for there to be a chance for a cure.
However, according to the Women’s Cancer Network, recent studies are dispelling that myth. Thompson’s own case involved symptoms that could have been anything, but she sought medical attention instead of ignoring them.
“I was experiencing fatigue and constipation and abdominal distending that I thought was bloating,” Thompson said. “For as thin as I am, I thought that was a little strange.”Other symptoms that are more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population include pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full or urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency).
Although these are common symptoms for other ailments, the persistence and number of symptoms are a key factor in diagnosing ovarian cancer. Thompson said that once she went to her doctor, he knew right away her symptoms fit into a pattern and he came up with a quick diagnosis.
Since then, Thompson has immersed in educating herself and others about the perils of ovarian cancer. About 21,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are reported each year, compared to 211,000 cases of breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. There are also 15,000 deaths attributed to ovarian cancer each year nationally.
“It is a less common, but more deadly type of cancer,” said Dr. Pam Paley, of the Swedish Medical Center, Issaquah clinic. “Typically, this is the result of a delay in diagnosis.”
Unlike breast cancer, there currently are no widely accepted screening techniques for ovarian cancer, she said. Because so many women historically waited to see their doctor to report symptoms often mistaken for common ailments, 75 percent of patients present at stage three or four of ovarian cancer, she said.
Paley explained that ovarian cancer is essentially a genetic mutation. There are no specific risk factors or susceptible groups. But risk does intensify with age, especially after menopause. A family history of cancer or having had breast cancer can increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
“Birth control pills can actually reduce your risk by up to 50 to 60 percent when used for many years,” Paley said. “That’s a fact many don’t know.”
Infertility and not having had children are actually increased risked factors, she added.
Increasing your chances of surviving include catching the cancer in as early a stage as possible and seeing an gynecological oncology specialist early in treatment as well.
After getting past her initial devastating diagnosis, Thompson has since learned that it isn’t an immediate death sentence.
“I didn’t get it that you can live with cancer,” she said. “The interesting thing is this has become my new normal. You kind of forget it’s happening, because you get used to it.”
In her three years since diagnosis, Thompson has seen the cancer go into remission and return. Now into her fourth round of chemotherapy, Thompson stays active with the fight to find both a cure and a screening technique. She’s participated in three cancer runs for Swedish, the most recent in July, helping raise $85,000.
“I just hope to help continue to raise awareness,” she said. “I want to focus the rest of my life on educating women on recognizing the symptoms and getting them to know the risk factors.
“The single most important thing that needs to change is going from having a symptom to suddenly being diagnosed with stage three cancer,” she added. “That’s not good enough.”
The following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer. Those include:
- Back pain
- Pain with intercourse
- Menstrual irregularities
However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer. That’s because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer.
David Hayes: 392-6434, ext. 237, firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.