September is National Ovarian Cancer Month.
One afternoon, 52-year-old mother Krista Dlugolecki suddenly doubled over in pain. Her abdomen hurt so badly, she could hardly move. She called her son and they went to the emergency room.
Tests indicated that Ms. Dlugolecki had advanced-stage ovarian cancer; she had no idea she was even sick. “When she was diagnosed, they did a bunch of tests and had treatments set up, but she only lasted nine months,” says her daughter, Jennifer Dlugolecki, Teal Lights committee chair for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition Chicago chapter. “At the time, I’d never heard of ovarian cancer; breast cancer was really the only thing people knew about.”
The survival rate for women with ovarian cancer hovers around 20-25 percent, making it one of the most deadly forms of cancer. While any cancer diagnosis is scary, ovarian cancer is particularly difficult because the symptoms are subtle, tests are imperfect and treatment options are limited.
“Symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating and some changes in bowel habit are many symptoms women think are just normal, initially, and it may take awhile before they and their physicians recognize they’re serious symptoms,” observes Diane Yamada, MD, chief of gynecologic oncology, University of Chicago. “Anything that’s consistent, persistent and recent warrants a trip to the doctor.”
Along with the difficulties of distinguishing symptoms, the disease is challenging for doctors because there’s no perfect test to see if a woman has cancer or could be at risk. By the time most women see a doctor, the cancer has spread outside of the ovaries to other abdominal organs, making it difficult to treat.
“We’re frustrated we don’t have a more sensitive test to detect ovarian cancer,” shares Julian Schink, MD, gynecologic oncologist, Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “And, it’s really the holy grail of ovarian cancer. People spent the last 20 years searching for the test that tells us we can get the cancer while it’s still confined to the ovary, but I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon.”
Over the past few decades there have been significant strides in understanding why the disease is so aggressive and which groups of women are most vulnerable. For many women diagnosed with endometriosis – a condition where cells from the uterus escape into the abdomen and cause inflammation, pain and, in some cases, infertility – there’s a stronger link to developing ovarian cancer later. A study released earlier this year by Lancet Oncology showed endometriosis, in some cases, doubled and tripled the risk of developing certain forms of ovarian cancer.
There is the option to undergo genetic tests for a mutation on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which predispose women for ovarian and breast cancer. “If you have a first degree relative who has developed cancer, you might want to consider undergoing genetic testing,” urges Dr. Yamada. “It allows you to identify family members who may have inherited genetic mutations so you can then undergo more aggressive screening strategies for breast cancer and consider surgery for ovarian cancer. Knowing and taking stock of your own personal cancer history and your family’s cancer history is important.”
For Jennifer Dlugolecki, ovarian cancer awareness hasn’t become just a volunteer cause, but a lifestyle change. She’s more in tune with her body and wonders if it would have made a difference if her mom had been tested sooner and been aware of symptoms. “My mom had ovarian cancer; her mom had breast cancer. Cancer is in the family on my mom’s side, so I’m in the running,” she says. “I have tests that are probably unnecessary, but I’d rather be aggressive and proactive instead of having to deal with this later. I get regular tests, stay current on knowledge about the disease and never blow off any pain or discomfort.”
It’s hard enough to slow down, listen to your body and take care of your health, but taking time for annual physicals, being open about changes or concerns with your body and knowing your family history can make a world of difference in an ovarian cancer diagnosis. “Women should listen to their bodies,” advises Dr. Schink. “If they don’t feel right, they need to see a doctor and say, ‘I’m not feeling right.’ And if they have ovarian cancer, they need to go to an expert center and request aggressive treatment.”
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Most common symptoms:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
Other symptoms can include:
- Upset stomach or heartburn
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Constipation or menstrual changes