Thursday, September 3, 2009

Know Your Body; Know the Symptoms

The title of this column is the theme of this year’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Each September teal ribbons are worn to remind us that ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all female reproductive cancers, and a leading cause of death among women.

Even in its early stages ovarian cancer has symptoms, but they are subtle, and common to many other diagnoses. One of the main reasons ovarian cancer is so deadly is that the disease often goes undiagnosed until it is advanced. However, research indicates that 95 percent of women diagnosed had symptoms and 90 percent experienced them even with early-stage cancer, so there is hope that with awareness, more lives can be saved. But most women – 75 percent – are still diagnosed in advanced stages. Be persistent with your doctor if you feel that something is not right. You know your body better than anyone else. Insist on further testing if you are having symptoms. What can you do to help spread the word?


· Tweet or use Facebook to share this link to more information, and/or a symptoms list on September 4 or anytime during Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

· Participate in a march or other event in your area. Google “ovarian cancer events” to find fundraisers and events in your area during September. I will be speaking at one in Denver on September 12 – The Teal Soiree, hosted by the Cheryl Shackelford Foundation. If you live near Denver, please join me.

· Write your political representatives to encourage them to fund ovarian cancer research and/or your health insurance company to ask them to cover annual screening for the disease. Many mistakenly believe that a pap test will detect ovarian cancer. Actually, it screens only for cervical cancer. There is currently NO definitive test to screen for ovarian cancer. Research funding will help speed up the process to develop one.

· Email your friends or ask them in person if they are familiar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer. You can obtain symptom cards from the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance or a local ovarian cancer organization to share with loved ones.

· Donate to an ovarian cancer research or advocacy organization. They know the most crucial needs and can direct your funds to those areas. Donate in honor or memory of a friend with the disease. It will be the best gift you could ever give them.

In 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Cancer Society, with significant support from the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, formed a consensus statement which follows.

"Historically ovarian cancer was called the “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance of cure was poor. However, recent studies have shown this term is untrue and that the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms.

Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.

Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer. These symptoms include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer."

I was lucky. My diagnosis came after severe pain and a trip to the emergency room, and luckily, it was caught at an early, treatable stage. Most symptoms are far more subtle and persistent. If you knew that sharing information or sending a link to this column could save the life of a woman you love, would you do it?