1/25/10

"It Whispers, So Listen"

(I originally posted this on September 2, however the formatting was faulty and cut off words from the right side. After correcting the issue, I am re-posting.)

“It whispers, so listen.” A teal band around my wrist bears this quote.

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and though we may hear little about this disease in the national media, the truth is that ovarian cancer is the leading cause of gynecological cancer deaths in women. The symptoms of ovarian cancer are often times vague, mimic symptoms of menopause, or present long after the cancer has spread beyond the ovary and into other parts of the body. In these cases, the cancer is much more difficult to treat successfully. However, for those lucky enough to “catch” the cancer before it spreads, the chance for recovery is 85% - 90%. Because it is difficult to diagnose in its early stages (only 24% are diagnosed when the cancer is confined within the ovary) it is imperative that women take a proactive approach to their own gynecological health.

All women are at risk, but few know what to look for. Contrary to what many women believe, an annual pap smear does not screen for ovarian cancer. In fact, the number of ovarian cancer cases discovered during an annual exam is extremely low. Symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal pressure or bloating, urinary urgency, pelvic discomfort, changes in menstruation (for pre-menopausal women), pain during intercourse, low back pain, fatigue, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, and persistent indigestion. These symptoms may seem trivial, and it may be very easy to attribute them to aging, however failing to talk to a doctor about them could be a mistake with grave consequences.

So what can you do?

First, know your risk factors. Although youth doesn’t make a woman immune, ovarian cancer isn’t as common in women younger than 40. Most cases of ovarian cancer occur after menopause, and most of those cases are diagnosed after the age of 63. Some studies also suggest a possible relationship between obesity and the development of ovarian cancer. One study from the American Cancer Society found a higher death rate from ovarian cancer in obese women. Long periods of uninterrupted ovulation also increase a woman’s risk of developing the disease. In other words, for every pregnancy, a woman’s risk is lowered. Use of oral contraceptives (that suppress ovulation) can also decrease a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Hormones taken to treat such issues as infertility, endometriosis, and menopausal symptoms may also increase a woman’s risk. In addition, a woman’s family medical history may also play a role in her risk of developing ovarian cancer. A family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer may suggest an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Second, talk to your doctor. No symptom is unimportant. My mother-in-law once spoke to her general physician about a pain she’d been having in her side. This led to a chest x-ray and other tests that diagnosed a malignant tumor on her kidney. She was able to have the cancer removed surgically, before it spread, and required no treatment afterward. Although she did not have ovarian cancer, her experience with early diagnosis illustrates the need to talk with your doctor about whatever symptoms you are experiencing. So speak with your doctor about your potential risk factors for ovarian cancer, and about any symptoms you experience that cause you concern. Ask your doctor about what you can do to decrease your risk of ovarian cancer. Ask your doctor if a blood test or ultrasound might help you discover what is causing your symptoms. Be persistent. Be vigilant.

As I write this letter, my grandmother, Mildred Pierson, is battling a recurrence of ovarian cancer. Her sister also battled the disease successfully several years ago. The women in my family knew relatively nothing about this disease until it affected us so profoundly. So for all the women out there who are unaware of ovarian cancer and its dangers, please take this opportunity to learn more. There are a many websites that can give you a wealth of information (www.ovarian.org, www.ovariancancer.org, www.ovariancancerawareness.org, and www.wcn.org just to name a few). Observe National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month by educating yourself and making the decision to be actively engaged and proactive in your gynecological health.

Ovarian cancer has been called the “silent killer”. The symptoms are so vague that it is difficult to diagnose early. The disease “whispers” its presence in the body, so women must listen carefully.

“It whispers, so listen.” So reads the teal band around my wrist, and so says a small voice that is always in my mind.

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