[caption id="attachment_6123" align="aligncenter" width="625"] “By the time a CT scan was ordered, the cancer had progressed to an advanced stage that is treatable, but not curable. I was furious at myself and upset with my doctor.” (Photo credit: Thinkstock)[/caption]
(Editor’s note: September was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.)
Ricki Lewis ignored her belly fat for months, attributing the extra weight and bloat around her middle to aging and menopause.
“I should have paid more attention when a well-meaning woman asked me when I was due — but instead, I just got angry,” the 59-year-old said. “It didn’t even occur to me to see the doctor.”
Lewis, a Schenectady, N.Y., science writer with a Ph.D. in human genetics, finally made an appointment to see her gynecologist when her best friend remarked on the noticeable change in her girth. “When the doctor saw my middle, she literally jumped back several feet,” said Lewis. An ultrasound revealed a 23 cm ovarian cyst. “The technologist said it was the second largest she’d ever seen.”
Fortunately, Lewis’ story had a happy ending: The cyst, which she now affectionately refers to as “Waldo,” weighed in at a whopping 18 pounds and was benign. “When my surgeon came out and said it was not cancer, my husband threw his arms around him,” she said.
But not everyone is so fortunate.
In The New York Time’s blog Well, Susan Gubar says she “misinterpreted the muted symptoms of ovarian cancer,” like bloating, satiety, fatigue and constipation, which are often ascribed to other conditions like menopause, aging, irritable bowel syndrome and even depression. She writes: “By the time a CT was ordered a year later, the cancer had progressed to an advanced stage that is treatable but not curable. I was furious at myself and upset with my doctor.”
Although the rate of ovarian cancer has been slowly falling over the past 20 years, the American Cancer Society’s latest estimates are that about 21,290 women in the United States will receive a new diagnosis this year, and about 14,180 will die from it.
“As women, we never think of ourselves first, so we make up excuses when something is staring us in the face,” Lewis reflects.
Additionally, as in Gubar’s case, some signs of ovarian cancer are similar to those of other conditions.
Carmel Cohen, M.D., a professor of clinical gynecology and obstetrics at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, says that if the symptoms are not “sufficiently suspicious,” a woman may, instead of heading to her gynecologist, visit her gastroenterologist or urologist. She may assume that it is something else — and not get the tests she really needs. A diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome or a urinary tract infection might be made, when instead the real culprit is ovarian cancer.
A pelvic exam, when your ovaries and uterus are checked for size, shape and consistency, can sometimes detect some reproductive system cancers at an early stage. However, most early ovarian tumors can be difficult — or even impossible — to feel.
Cohen, who is also a member of the American Cancer Society’s Eastern Division Board, says that ovarian cancer can be missed “until the woman who is fearful says to her gynecologist ‘prove to me that I don’t have ovarian cancer.’” This is imperative, since a delay in diagnosis can result in disease progression, making it more difficult to be treated successfully.
Although it’s not uncommon for many women to feel some of these symptoms from time to time, “the hooker here is that the symptoms need to be new, persistent for about one month, occur many times within that month, and be otherwise unexplained,” Cohen says. (For instance, if you chowed down on a highly salted meal of Chinese food the night before, there might be a reasonable explanation for the bloating you feel the next day.)
“Women need to be extremely aware of what is normal for them,” stresses Bobbie J. Rimel, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.
About 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage; this is when they’re most treatable. When found early and at a localized stage, approximately 94 percent of women will live longer than five years after diagnosis.
If you have any of the following symptoms, and they are persistent or unusual, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist.
Having a risk factor — or even several — is not a guarantee you’ll get ovarian cancer. On the flip side, you can get the disease and not have any risk factors. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the following facts.
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