Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

ovations-for-the-cure.jpgIn light of September being National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, today, Sarah candidly shares her story, as well as important information for women to consider:

“I always assumed that by the time I reached the ripe old age of 35, I’d have a husband, two kids, a house in the ‘burbs, and a dog. What I didn’t expect was the minivan. Oh, and the cancer.
Having grown up in a family of long-lived people where the sickest anyone got was a once-annual stomach flu, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that my diagnosis came out of left field. Thirty-four, healthy as an ox, regular exerciser, fried-food-avoider, I had to force myself to make my annual check-up appointments because nothing ever happened. My pregnancies had been uneventful, my deliveries quick. Never even a broken bone.

Starting in the early winter of 2005-06, I started to have some pelvic pain with, um, marital relations. Just in certain, er, directions, and usually around the time I ovulated. I decided that it was an ovulation thing and let it go. I was also really tired, but what mom of two active boys, ages 18 months and 3 ½ years, isn’t? My daily nap was a foregone conclusion. But as spring progressed and my pants got tighter in the waist, I couldn’t ignore the cascade of symptoms any more – something was not right. I never expected a dire discovery, though, and even with two inconclusive ultrasounds and an elevated CA-125 blood test, the scheduled laparoscopy didn’t freak me out because I was sure it was just a cyst.

When I woke up seven hours later, with anxious faces all around me, I knew it wasn’t a cyst. The diagnosis was Stage III-c papillary serous adenocarcinoma: ovarian cancer, and pretty far progressed. Cue the Twilight Zone music.

I’m fortunate that my OB-Gyn works with one of the top GYN-Oncologists in the Boston area, and with her treatment (aggressive and unpleasant, but effective), I was in remission within eight months. Bad news: once ovarian cancer has reached the stage where mine was discovered, no matter how thorough the treatment, it usually comes back. And it has, twice. Good news: the longer I fight, the more technology progresses, and the greater my chances of survival.

Here are some things I wish I’d known in 2005:

  • More than 21,000 American women are given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer every year, and more than 14,000 women die from it.

  • Ovarian cancer is usually found once tumors have reached the size of an onion. Patients have a greater chance of survival when they are discovered at the size of a peppercorn.

  • Symptoms to watch for include:
    - Pelvic pain
    - Changes in bowel habits
    - Unexplained weight gain or loss
    - An unexplained feeling of fullness when you eat
    - Fatigue

  • The CA-125 blood test, which looks for an ovarian cancer antigen, has many false positives, including menstruation, pregnancy, and endometriosis, and so is not used as a screening test or administered to women who have no other symptoms of ovarian cancer.

  • If you feel lousy, go see your doctor soon. If that doctor tells you you’re fine, and you think they’re wrong, go see another doctor. Do not stop until you are satisfied. Do not dismiss your symptoms until someone has given you an answer you are comfortable with.

  • No one knows why ovarian cancer starts. Some patients have genetic variations (BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations) that predispose them to breast and ovarian cancers, but check your family history. My cancer was a random mutation, like 75% of cases, possibly environmental (but not caused by my addiction to Diet Coke).

    I’m doing well on my current chemotherapy protocol, and I expect to reach a maintenance phase in October. But I’ve come to treat this disease as a chronic one, like diabetes, that needs periodic treatment with breaks in between. Which means that I’ll probably face more recurrences. But there’s a silver lining: being bald means no shaving, blow-drying, flat-ironing, or highlighting, and I never have a bad-hair day.

    Living in Boston is certainly an important part of my survival: there are amazing medical centers here that offer the latest in treatment studies and options. And what better reason to get out of bed and keep fighting every day than two beautiful children and a supportive husband?

    I hope that my story will help you or someone you love get an earlier handle on any diagnosis. I’d be happy to answer any questions or comments below, or visit www.ovationsforthecure.org for more information.”