Knowledge is Power
You’ve probably heard of breast cancer.
You may even know it is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., with one out of eight developing it at some point in their lives.
You may also know that the five-year survival rate averages nearly 90 percent, depending on the cancer’s stage when detected.
But have you heard of ovarian cancer?
Did you know that while your risk of developing it is less than breast cancer – one out of 71 women – your chance of surviving it is also much less – 46 percent, depending on the stage at diagnosis?
Ruth Christenson of Alexandria wants you to know about ovarian cancer because knowing about it may save your life.
At age 51, Christenson started experiencing some mild “issues,” such as bloating, side pain and the feeling of having to relieve her bladder but not being able to.
“I basically just ignored them,” she said. “I didn’t feel I needed to make an appointment for that.”
She had religiously had annual physicals and been in relatively good health.
However, the problems persisted and with the urging of her co-workers and her mother she went to see a doctor in January of 2007.
“I was told it could either be intestinal blockage or a tumor,” she recalled.
She had a CT scan done right away. The results showed a large tumor. She was immediately referred to a gynecologist and was scheduled for surgery the next day.
What doctors found was a large four-chamber cancerous tumor, with seedings of cancer also found in the uterus, ovaries, colon and fallopian tube.
Christenson had stage T3c ovarian cancer.
“People often don’t realize they have this kind of cancer until it is advanced,” she said. “So many of the symptoms can be attributed to other things.”
A DIFFICULT BATTLE
Christenson underwent an aggressive regime of chemotherapy and radiation.
After completing treatments, she went almost two years before the cancer recurred, with a tumor on her colon and two on her liver.
She had a second surgery to remove the tumors and again underwent chemotherapy treatments.
Nine months after her last treatment, the cancer was back again.
“At that point I started having allergic reactions to the chemotherapy and had to undergo desensitization, which meant the treatments that used to be three to four hours long were now 20 hours.”
Six months after her last treatment, the aggressive cancer returned.
“It came back four times, with each one shorter in the time-span of remission,” she said. “It can be pretty stubborn.”
Christenson is now on a maintenance program, which includes daily medications and traveling to the Twin Cities for appointments every three weeks.
“My sister has been with me to every appointment,” she said. “I give her a list of questions. During the appointments she takes notes and asks questions. When a doctor says ‘the cancer is back,’ you kind of gloss over. It’s important to have a support system with you.”
“Things are stable for now,” she added. “I won’t have any more surgeries. We’re just focusing on quality of life now. Some tumors are growing and some are shrinking.
“I tolerate the medications I am on now the best of any so far,” she added. “But I have low strength and energy and am tired. I can still do things, but I do them in smaller pieces.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
While Christenson knows there isn’t much she can do for herself at this point, she’s still fighting back by trying to bring ovarian cancer awareness to others.
And with September being Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, she decided now is the time.
“Everyone hears so much about breast cancer, but very little about ovarian cancer,” she said. “Not only is it a silent killer, but it’s also silent in terms of awareness. I want to change that.
“If I had known earlier, things could be different,” she added.
Christenson found out that based on her family history, she had a 30 percent chance of having the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene. Testing showed that she carried the BRCA 2 gene (see genetics sidebar).
“To me, knowledge is power,” she said. She gathered as much information as she could and then sent it to her extended family, urging them to undergo testing.
“My sister tested negative, but a cousin on my father’s side was positive,” she said.
Christenson added that there is a lot of misinformation about female hereditary cancers, and that often much focus is put on the mother’s side of the family.
“If you do have cancer and are looking at genetics, don’t just look at the mother’s side,” she urged. “I was asked about my family history, and there was nothing on my mom’s side. This came from my dad’s side.
“There’s a 50-50 chance of passing along this gene to your children,” she added. “People need to be aware.”
That’s what Christenson is trying to do – make people aware.
“I just want to get the word out,” she said. “Pay attention to your symptoms, know the signs and act quickly. Be your own health advocate. Dig further for information, know your family history and don’t always take the doctor’s word.
“Take it down before it gets you.”
Known as the silent killer, ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries and forms tumors that can easily spread. It often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this stage, it is difficult to treat and is often fatal. It is the leading cause of death from female reproductive cancers.
Everyone has two copies of each gene – one from each parent. Heredity cancer occurs when a person is born with changes or mutations in one copy of a damage-controlling gene, which normally protects against cancer. In the majority of these cases, the changes were inherited from one parent.
People with an inherited gene change have a 50 percent chance of passing the mutation to each of their children. These changes can increase the risk for cancers in different parts of the body, but do not increase the risk for every type of cancer. Not everyone born with the gene change will develop cancer.
• Abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating.
• Pelvic discomfort or pain.
• Persistent indigestion, gas, nausea.
• Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation.
• Changes in bladder habits, including a frequent need to urinate.
• Loss of appetite or quickly feeling full.
• Increased abdominal girth or clothes fitting tighter around waist.
• A persistent lack of energy.
• Low back pain.
• A woman’s lifetime risk of developing invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 71.
• A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 95.
• Ovarian cancer primarily develops in women older than 45, however, it does occur in young women as well.
• From 2005 to 2009, the median age at diagnosis was 63. From the same period, the median age at death from ovarian cancer was 71.
Ovarian cancer survival rates are much lower than other cancers that affect women.
• Overall, the 10-year relative survival rate for ovarian cancer patients is 39 percent.
• The relative five-year survival rate is 46 percent. Survival rates vary depending on the stage of diagnosis.
• Fewer than 20 percent of ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed early.
• Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1975 experienced a five-year survival rate of 34.8 percent; today, the American Cancer Society estimates the rate to be 46 percent.