Ovarian cancer: The silent killer ... or is it?
It is ovarian cancer awareness week -- for my sisters and me at least. Our mother's birthday was this past Sunday, March 1st. We should've woken that morning with a slight hangover and a happy afterglow from the successful 70th birthday party we threw her. She was a woman worth celebrating, and there is no doubt her 70th would have been an event.
My mom at 60, two years after her diagnosis.
Instead, I woke with an all too familiar pit in my stomach and ache in my chest. Seven and a half years later, the shock of her death can still bring me to my knees. Most days, I have a low-grade generalized feeling of loss, but every once in a while ... Bam! I'm brought back to 2007, and the pain is present and acute. I'm brought back to the irrational and useless feelings of anger, bitterness and confusion.
Why her? She was active, thin, healthy and eternally happy. She never smoked, drank Pinot Grigio occasionally, but stopped when she "got that funny feeling", and was never ill. She had four children - pregnancy is supposed to be protective. Her parents lived to 97 and 102. So why, at 58, an age that to me seems younger and younger each year, did she develop a tumor on her ovary? There's no good explanation, which is something I must simply accept. As my mom, Madelyn, would say, "There are mothers with young children who are dying from this. This isn't about what's fair."
Had it been discovered while still confined to her pelvis, she would've had a chance, a good chance. It was only after cancer cells traveled to her diaphragm and lungs, divided and grew into more tumors, did she experience some shortness of breath. This prompted a visit to a walk in clinic, assuming a diagnosis of pneumonia and hoping for an antibiotic to clear things up. She had a friend's party to attend the next day. About 24 hours later, with a stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis, life, as we knew it, was over.
I wonder incessantly if she had been more of a complainer, more selfish, more egocentric, would she have noticed the subtle symptoms of her illness earlier? Would she have noticed them early enough to save her life?
What might my mother have been feeling? As a gender, we have a tendency to downplay our aches and pains, focusing on the needs of others and our families. How often do you hear a mom say, "I am too busy to get sick." Fighting through a cold might be noble, but ignoring warning signs can be fatal.
This year, it is estimated 21,290 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 14,180 women will die of the disease.
Currently, there is no routine screening for ovarian cancer.*
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms including urgency or frequency
Other symptoms, which are considered less specific, are fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities.
These may be vague, but they are still real symptoms. Is ovarian cancer the Silent Killer or is it the Ignored Killer? Ovarian cancer grows and spreads very quickly. Too often it is diagnosed in its later stages because we women overlook the signals our bodies are sending, or we try to tough it out. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms consistently, if you have a sixth sense something is not right, please talk to your doctor. It is a conversation which could save your life. Share this with the women you love!
* Since publishing this article, I've been asked if there are tests for ovarian cancer. The answer is yes. There is a blood test which looks at a marker called CA125, but it is not specific for ovarian cancer leading to a lot of false positives. A pelvic ultrasound (sonogram) will detect a tumor on the ovary, but it is not performed routinely at your GYN visits.