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Educate yourself and other women about the signs of deadly ovarian cancer: Molly Callahan (Opinion)

September 7, 2018

Educate yourself and other women about the signs of deadly ovarian cancer: Molly Callahan (Opinion)

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio -- There is no screening test for a disease that is expected to strike more than 22,000 women and kill more than 14,000 in the United States this year.

Those figures are the American Cancer Society’s projections for ovarian cancer, the deadliest gynecologic cancer and the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related death among women.

Ovarian cancer used to be called “the silent killer” because its symptoms mimic other diseases and are treated as such. Consequently, it’s often diagnosed in later stages, when there is a lower survival rate. But the news is getting better.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to educate women and anyone who knows a woman about this deceptive disease. Medical experts have designated these symptoms as warning signs:

BloatingWeight gainPelvic, abdominal or lower back painDifficulty eating or feeling full quicklyUrgent or frequent urinationChanges in bowel habits – constipation or diarrhea

The ACS urges women who have these symptoms more than 12 times in a month to see a gynecologist if the symptoms are new or unusual for them. Women diagnosed before the cancer has spread have a higher five-year survival rate. But only about 15 percent of cases are diagnosed at an early stage, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Three and a half years ago, all I knew about ovarian cancer was that Gilda Radner had died from it. Then an abdominal scan revealed a mass on one of my ovaries.

“That needs to come out,” said the emergency department physician assistant, who told me to follow up with a gynecologic oncologist. For months I’d been having gastrointestinal symptoms that I assumed were an ulcerative colitis flare-up. But medications weren’t helping and I had never been so sick for so long. Thank God the PA ordered that scan. I wish I knew her name because she probably saved my life.

Surgery and a subsequent biopsy confirmed that I had Stage II-C ovarian cancer, a type known as high-grade serous cell carcinoma. Although I certainly didn’t feel this way when I was diagnosed, I was lucky. My cancer had been caught early and my gynecologic oncologist said that with chemotherapy my prognosis was good.

Chemo was really hard on me, but the doctor was right. The treatment I received weekly for four months put me into remission. Until the cancer came back the next year. I learned then that ovarian cancer recurrences are common and that the remission period typically is shorter after each recurrence.

After six more months of chemo, I went into remission again in July 2017. My second remission has now lasted longer than my first, thanks to a weekly maintenance treatment that wasn’t available my first time around.  

Research to find better treatments, a screening test and a cure for ovarian cancer proceeds slowly, but there has been progress. Meanwhile, the best thing you can do is be vigilant. Speak up in the doctor’s office even if it makes you uncomfortable. Better to risk offending a medical professional than to risk your life.

The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance is the largest global organization dedicated to fighting ovarian cancer. Its efforts include leading an annual Advocacy Day during which survivors go to Capitol Hill, most at their own expense, to request that more money be allocated for ovarian cancer research. I participated this spring and the experience was eye-opening and exhilarating.   

Survivors Teaching Students: Saving Women’s Lives®, an OCRFA program, brings ovarian cancer survivors into college classrooms to share their stories with students pursuing health care careers. I joined the program last year and I know our message is reaching them.

OROC (OutRun Ovarian Cancer), founded in 2003 by Bay Village resident Gretchen Nock, holds events, including a race downtown each August and a fashion show in September, to fund ovarian cancer research and education. The volunteer-run nonprofit has raised more than $1 million, all of which stays in Northeast Ohio.

One more thing you can do in September is wear teal, the designated color for ovarian cancer, to support survivors and remember those we’ve lost to the disease. And tell people why you’re wearing it.

To learn more and support these organizations, go to ocrfa.org and oroc.org.

Molly Callahan, a freelance writer and editor and former Plain Dealer copy editor, lives in Rocky River.

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