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Two women in my life have ovarian cancer. One is my sister’s sister-in-law. She’s in her 30s. She found her cancer by accident; she thought she had a hernia. The other woman is one of my closest friend’s mothers. Her cancer is pretty advanced. She found out thanks to a routine abdominal sonogram. They have a lot of company. About 1 in 70 women will get ovarian cancer in their lifetime. It’s a nasty disease. By the time most people realize they have it, it’s tough to treat.

This morning, I was honored to spend time on the phone with Sarah DeFeo and Audra Moran of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Sarah is the organization’s director of scientific affairs; Audra is its CEO. We talked about detection, prevention and ways you and I can get involved. Here’s a transcript of our discussion:

KB: Who is most likely to get ovarian cancer?

Sarah: With many cancers, they appear at any time at any age. Cancer doesn’t discriminate for the most part. Ovarian cancer is a little different, though. The vast majority of people who get it are post menopausal women 55 years and older. We also know that women with certain risk factors get it, too.

KB: How many people get the disease?

Sarah: The current stats say that 22,000 American women will be diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer, and approximately 15,000 will die of the disease.

KB: How can you tell that you’ve got the disease? What are the warning signs?

Sarah: It’s tough, because you don’t have much in the way of symptoms. Plus, right now there’s no method of early diagnosis, which means far too many [people] are diagnosed in late stage disease. If ovarian cancer is caught early at stage 1 or 2 it can be treated effectively and the treatment is quite high.

KB: How can we change that? Why aren’t more women diagnosed earlier?

Sarah: It’s tough because there’s nothing like a pap smear or a mammogram out there for ovarian cancer detection. However, there are early warning indicators. Many women with ovarian cancer report that they did have symptoms, but they didn’t recognized them as ovarian cancer. [These] women had things like abdominal bloating — some women notice their pants seem too tight around the waist — difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. They might not have a desire to eat. Urinary problems are another symptom. Having to go frequently or having problems with urgency. The hard part is any women could read these symptoms and at any time and say, “Oh my God. I am bloated, I have ovarian cancer!” Any woman could have these symptoms at any time and they are nothing. The key is if these symptoms are new and unusual for you and they persist, you need to get them checked out. If you have these symptoms for two weeks, three weeks go to your doctor and be sure to ask about ovarian cancer.

KB: Won’t my doctor or midwife think I’m nuts if I say I think I have ovarian cancer?

Sarah: It’s worth being explicit especially when the symptoms are vague. We hear stories about women who bounce around the medical system for a few months before getting a diagnosis, and that’s what we want to avoid. For example, if symptoms are basically GI problems, a woman could end up going to a gastroenterologist. You need to say it because even though we hope a gynecologist would think to check for it, if it is a younger woman, it might not be top of mind for that doctor if the patient doesn’t appear to have warning signs.

KB: I get a sonogram of my ovaries when I go for a regular checkup. Why doesn’t every doctor or midwife do that?

Sarah: For many doctors the concern is it would lead to some unnecessary treatment. If you screen 100 people you might find something in a few of them. So the next thing you know you’re performing potentially risky surgeries on women.

KB: Why is it so important for people to get involved and donate to ovarian cancer research and organizations like the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund?

Sarah: We’re the largest non-profit in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to funding ovarian cancer research. (There are some government sponsored research programs going on, too.) We’ve been around for 15 years, making grants for 12 years. In that time we’ve made a big impact on the field. Not only in moving the science forward but also helping to grow ovarian research itself. Most people don’t know this, but scientists they will go where they can find money to do research. So if there is no money out there for ovarian research but tons of money for prostate cancer research they will go and do the prostate cancer research instead. What we’re doing is helping them get working and encouraging them to stay in the field.

KB: How can women protect themselves from ovarian cancer?

Sarah: Be proactive about looking for signs of cancer. Also, be extra vigilant if you have any of the risk signs: increasing age, if you have a family or personal history of breast cancer, if you’ve never had children. Oral contraceptive use significantly reduces risk, as does breastfeeding and multiple pregnancies.

KB: How can I get involved?

Audra: There are plenty of ways. You can donate to the fund right on our website. We’ve also got an online shop where vendors have donated beautiful items for purchase. And right now Electrolux, though Kelly Ripa’s Kelly Confidential site, will donate $1 for every banana split you make online.

Do you have someone in your family who is affected by this terrible disease? How do you protect yourself from cancer on a daily basis? Let’s hear it!

5 Responses to “Ovarian Cancer: What’s Your Risk?”

  1. Kristina says:

    Thank you so much for this post. You may have saved alive today!
    Being an oncology nurse, I see first hand how early detection saves lives! Would you mind if I linked you blog post to my blog? Thanks

  2. kb says:

    I love links! Absolutely! And thanks for reading!

  3. MarthaAndMe says:

    This is SO important. My grandmother had ovarian cancer – very advanced – but was cured with surgery and chemo. No one thought she would make it. So this is something I am always concerned about.

  4. Emily Jenkins says:

    Ovarian cancer is definately a ‘silent killer’ and early detection is crucial. To be honest I don’t there is enough awareness about it especially for the potential risks for younger women being diagnosed more and more!
    I would have to advise against giving consent to the laparotomy if you ‘have’ to give consent to any organs potentially being removed if they may be cancerous. Ask for a biopsy. It’s not a simple risk-free procedure and it’s quite a large incision. The CA125 should be, and usually is always one of the tests in diagnosing ovarian cancer as it looks for a tumor marker that is greater concentration in ovarian cancer than in other cells. I was told the CA125 is used mainly for ‘monitoring’ women who have known cancer. And that’s where the problem lies where this test could help diagnose early detection. Maybe it’s a cost issue! The Oncology ward is depressing but at least the nurses are the friendliest in the hospital. But I’ve seen others die there too and it’s a terrible thing to see. Very sad but hopefully more research can be done to come up with a cure!

  5. Emily Jenkins says:

    The CA125 blood test is only one of many tests that help in diagnosing ovarian cancer. I would get a second and third opinion before undergoing any operation to remove cancerous areas.

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