The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, about 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed. However, ovarian cancer is not discussed very often in public, and women seem to want to keep that particular diagnosis to themselves. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, but what exactly are the facts? We sat down with Dr. Lesley Meng, an oncologist from East Jefferson General Hospital, to learn more.
Don’t wait to feel pain before calling your doctor – the association of cancer with pain is a common misconception. Often, you’ll feel no pain at all. “Most prevalent [symptom of ovarian cancer] is actually going to be swelling of the abdomen,” says Dr. Meng. “These cancer cells like to produce fluids, and the fluid just likes to fill up the abdominal cavity. So patients may notice that they feel a little bit more full, their pants fit a little bit more tighter, things like that.” Another symptom is weight loss, which could be caused by your body’s metabolism speeding up or by a decrease in appetite. Of course, a swollen abdomen or unusual weight loss are not arrows pointing directly to an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Concerns like these should be brought to a physician, who will then go through the proper tests to determine how to proceed.
If you are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, keep your chin up. Ovarian cancer cells are chemo-sensitive, which basically means, as Dr. Meng says, “these tumor cells like to be killed by chemo.” A typical procedure would entail going through chemotherapy first to kill as many cells as possible, and then undergoing surgery to ensure that the entire tumor has been removed. “The chemotherapy of choice is actually a platinum-based chemotherapy,” she said. “We usually give anywhere from 4-6 cycles.” Giving chemo before surgery has been proven to improve the response rates to treatment. Even if the ovarian cancer has spread to an area of the body such as the lung, women in this situation still do very well with chemotherapy.
During treatment, the support system of a woman diagnosed with cancer can work wonders. “It would help patients immensely if family members and friends allow these patients to talk about it,” Dr. Meng said. “Encourage them to share their journey. Don’t be awkward. You know, there’s nothing to fear.” She’s still your mother, your sister, your aunt or your best friend. Nothing really has changed except for a few extra visits to the doctor, and your support through a time that may be frightening for her can make a huge difference.
The important thing to remember is that a cancer diagnosis does not have to be the end of the world. “We really want to take the fear away from people,” Dr. Meng stressed. “People don’t need to die of cancer if they catch it early….Oncologists don’t go into this field because we lose most of our patients. We just don’t.” Dr. Meng was clear that most of the patients at her practice were either able to go into remission or were cured, but that they were not dying of their cancer. Easy practices like a simple screening process can catch the growth of ovarian cancer cells early before they even become a huge risk to your health. When there are so many horror stories and sad Lifetime movies about terminal cancer patients, it’s easy to believe that being diagnosed with cancer is the end of your life. But in reality, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.