Ovarian Cancer: Know The Signs

ocna-cupcakes.jpgLast September, in honor of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, contributing writer Sarah candidly shared her story. This year, in another moving post, she makes the astute point that, "A cure for cancer is a tempting illusion, but the way to save more lives is to get this disease detected and treated while it's still small." Please read on and familiarize yourself with the symptoms, and share this post with the women in your lives.
From Sarah:

I just finished reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a book that reminds us about trusting our instincts when making decisions instead of gathering reams of superfluous information and being as informed as possible before acting.

A fitting metaphor for medical situations. If I had trusted my instincts in 2005, I would have visited my doctor when things started to feel "not-right." When my stomach got too bloated to fasten my pants, I wouldn't have chalked it up to too many desserts. When I was so fatigued by lunchtime that I had to take a nap every afternoon, I wouldn't have thought it just the lot of every mother of two young boys, ages three and eighteen months. When I had pain in my left pelvis every time I had sex with my husband, I wouldn't have assumed it was a simple ovulatory cyst. I would have gone to see my doctor months before she walked her dog past my house and my husband mentioned my wacky symptoms to her, and she told him I should come in for a visit.

I would have discovered my ovarian cancer before it got so far advanced that my chances of five-year survival, the only statistic you can nail any clinician down to with this disease, were reduced from 85% to 35%.

More than 21,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, and more than 13,000 others will die from it. The statistic that shocked me the most is that over half of the women are UNDER the age of 60. Which makes my diagnosis at age 34 a lot less unlikely than I thought it was, another reason I didn't worry enough about my symptoms.

The number-one reason I didn't freak out like I should have, though, is that I had no idea what to watch out for. I knew how to give myself a breast self-exam; knew that a yearly Pap smear would keep me informed of cervical cancer. I had stopped smoking after a brief stint in college, ate well, went to the gym three times a week, drank an occasional glass of wine with dinner. But my symptoms were classics, and I had no idea.

There's no good diagnostic test for ovarian cancer yet; the one we have now gives a number of false positives that make doctors unwilling to use it on patients without a family history of the disease. So women need to watch for:

  • Persistent abdominal bloating
  • Inability to eat or a feeling of fullness
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Bowel changes, unexplainable diarrhea or constipation

    If you have any of these symptoms for longer than a week, call your OB/GYN immediately and ask for a trans-vaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test. Missed diagnoses are common, especially in young women -- doctors often mistake these symptoms for those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastric reflux disease (GERD), or even depression or anxiety. If your doctor doesn't take you seriously, seek another opinion until you're satisfied; it is your doctor's responsibility to convince you that you DON'T have ovarian cancer, not your responsibility to convince the doctor to take your symptoms seriously.

    And the best thing you can do during September -- National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month -- is to share these important symptoms with other women. The sooner the disease is caught, the more treatable it is.

    A cure for cancer is a tempting illusion, but the way to save more lives is to get this disease detected and treated while it's still small. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the symptoms, and make sure you listen to your body. Trust yourself -- if you don't feel right, get help today. If we don't take care of ourselves first, who will take care of our loved ones when we no longer can?

    For more information, visit the following websites:

    Ovarian Cancer National Alliance: A national group dedicated to awareness, support, and community action around ovarian cancer. Hosts of an annual conference in Washington, D.C. and a day of legislative lobbying on Capitol Hill. Click for more information on the disease and a downloadable PDF poster of the symptoms.

    Ovations For The Cure: A locally based non-profit working to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and raise money for research through local events. Also host to a monthly support group.

    American Cancer Society: Detailed information on symptoms, treatments, and support for all types of cancer. Click on "Learn About Cancer" on the homepage and choose "ovarian."

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    Image credit: Ovarian Cancer National Alliance

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