The Whisperings of Ovarian Cancer

by Laura Dolson

A year after his wife, Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer, Gene Wilder appeared on TV to alert women about the early warning signs of the disease.  Later, he received a letter from a woman who had been watching.  She wrote, "as you described Gilda's symptoms, I felt a chill wash through my body, and I knew that I, too, had ovarian cancer".*  She went on to say that she did indeed have cancer, but that it was caught in the earliest stage when the prognosis is very good.

Ovarian cancer has long been called "The Silent Killer", because it usually isn't discovered until its advanced stages.  70-75% of the time the cancer has spread to other parts of the abdomen before it is detected.  However,  there is something that can be done, now, to improve these dismal statistics.  The truth is that some substantial portion of the time, early-stage ovarian cancer does produce symptoms - and the new battlecry of ovarian cancer activists is "It Whispers - So Listen!".

Unfortunately, this cry is still rarely heard outside of the community of people who have already been affected by the disease.  Even now, in medical textbooks and articles, the fact that ovarian cancer often causes early symptoms is rarely mentioned.  No wonder that women, on the whole, don't know what symptoms to be alert for.  Why should this be?  Among the reasons:

- It is unknown what percentage of early-stage ovarian cancer produces symptoms.  The vast majority of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer do experience symptoms.  However, since most of these women are diagnosed in more advanced stages, it's impossible to tell how many of them had symptoms before the cancer started to spread.  It IS known that 90% of women who are diagnosed in Stage I come to their doctors with symptoms before diagnosis, and also that far too many cases of ovarian cancer take months to diagnose - a recent study showed that almost half took more than three months, and 11% took longer than a year.  So it seems logical to assume that some substantial percentage of women do have early symptoms.

- The common symptoms are non-specific - usually caused by other things.  The list below contains a number of possible symptoms of ovarian cancer.  But these symptoms can also result from a wide variety of non-cancerous conditions.  If a woman has trouble zipping up her jeans, she's more likely to blame middle-aged spread than ovarian cancer.  Thankfully, a gas pain isn't ordinarily a dire signal.  Still, if a woman suddenly starts experiencing any of the symptoms below, and they persist for more than a 2-3 weeks, she should get those symptoms checked out.

- There is no one "marker symptom".  Although abdominal swelling/bloating is the most often-mentioned first symptom, some studies show that even this is true only for a minority of ovarian cancer cases.  Because each symptom will affect only some women, it is vital that women educate themselves about the whole constellation of symptoms associated with ovarian cancer.

- Denial.  Of course, no one wants to think about cancer.  But think about this:  The lifetime risk of women worldwide for ovarian cancer is 1 in 70.   In the U.S. it is 1 in 55.  Think about your high school graduating class.  Your church.  Your workplace.  The numbers of women you know.  How many of them are likely to get ovarian cancer? OVARIAN CANCER IS NOT RARE.

Women MUST begin to educate themselves about this insidious disease.

WARNING SYMPTOMS OF OVARIAN CANCER

Contact your MD if you develop one or more of these symptoms and they persist for 2-3 weeks:

-Abdominal Swelling/Bloating/Clothes Too Tight
-Abdominal/Pelvic Pain or Pressure or Feeling "Full"
-Gastrointestinal Symptoms (such as gas, indigestion,  nausea, or changes in bowel movements)
-Vaginal Bleeding or Discharge
-Urinary Problems - Urgency, Burning, or Spasms
-Fatigue and/or Fever
-Pain During Intercourse
-Back Pain
-Difficulty Breathing

Remember, the vast majority of the time, these will not be due to cancer, but you owe it to yourself to get them checked out.

What should you expect from your doctor at your appointment?  In addition to testing for other causes for your symptoms, your doctor should perform a pelvic examination, including the rectovaginal component.  A prompt pelvic exam has been shown to be one of the best predictors of timely diagnosis.  The other non-invasive tests used to detect ovarian cancer are the CA-125 blood test, and transvaginal ultrasound.  These three tests together will alert the doctor to whether there is a danger of ovarian cancer.

SAVE LIVES *** SPREAD THE WORD

*  From the book Gilda's Disease, by Steven Piver, M.D. with Gene Wilder

For more information about ovarian cancer, check out:

The Web site of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, dedicated to advocacy and education.

What You Need to Know about Ovarian Cancer - booklet from the National Cancer Institute.

 

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Copyright © 2001 by Laura Dolson. All rights reserved. Please submit reprint requests to gyncancer@baymoon.com

The material on this page and Web site is for informational and educational purposes only, and should not substitute for medical advice. Anyone having questions about the application of information appearing here to a specific person or situation should obtain advice from a qualified physician.