September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and The American Cancer Society estimated that approximately 15,280 women died from ovarian cancer in the United States during 2007. Ovarian cancer remains the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the U.S.
While statistics indicate ovarian cancer mainly occurs in women 55 years or older, one third of women who develop this disease are much younger. In my novel, Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace, Paul Pierson’s first wife Rachel, succumbs to ovarian cancer in her late twenties. I used ovarian cancer for two reasons – it is hard to detect early and I had personal experience of friends battling the disease who were well under fifty. By employing ovarian cancer as part of the story, I wanted to raise awareness about this disease, especially one with few warning signs.
Like any cancer, the sooner ovarian cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better a woman’s chances of survival. If the cancer can be treated before it has spread outside the ovary, the five year survival rate is 93%. However, only 19% of all ovarian cancers are found at this stage, so it is crucial that women of all ages are familiar with symptoms, which can initially be quite vague increasing over time. Some of these symptoms include:
Bleeding from the vagina
Pain in the lower abdomen
Pelvic and/or abdominal swelling, bloating, and/or a feeling of
Unexplained weight gain or loss
Vague but persistent gastrointestinal upsets such as gas,
nausea, and indigestion
Unexplained changes in bowel habits
Ongoing unusual fatigue
Although the issue of heredity is never addressed in the book, a woman can inherit an increased risk of ovarian cancer. This is particularly true if a direct relative (mother, father, sister, or daughter) has, or has had ovarian, breast, colon, or prostate cancer. Women with a strong family history of ovarian cancer are more likely to develop the disease at a younger age (prior to 50).
Regardless of age, one thing for all women to keep in mind is that a Pap test does not detect ovarian cancer. Currently, there are no reliable, accurate screening tests in existence. However, women should still have annual vaginal exams, as the detection of abnormal swelling or tenderness can be an indication of more serious problems.
Two other diagnostic tests are generally used with women having a higher risk of ovarian cancer. The transvaginal sonography is an ultrasound performed with a small instrument placed in the vagina. The second test involves blood work to determine if the level of a tumor marker called CA-125 has increased in the blood. Again, this test is primarily used with women at high risk or who have had an abnormal pelvic exam.
Rachel Pierson’s death from ovarian cancer is only mentioned briefly in the novel, but the tragedy of her loss haunts the family long after. When Paul confesses to his family that his marriage to his second wife may be crumbling, he laments that his first wife, whom he loved deeply, died from a terrible disease. The good news is that rates of this insidious disease are declining. But, to continue making strides in early detection, treatment options, and survival rates, all women need to familiarize themselves with the symptoms associated with ovarian cancer and consult their gynecologist and discuss concerns.
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, there are numerous organizations committed to eradicating this disease. Here are three of the most well known:
National Ovarian Cancer Coalition – Their mission is to raise awareness and promote education about ovarian cancer. The site offers state chapters, breaking news, support and services, clinical trails, and resources.
National Cancer Institute – This organization is under the umbrella of the U.S. National Institute of Health. The site provides extensive information on treatment, prevention and causes, clinical trials, and research.
American Cancer Society – The ACS is a community-based, voluntary organization with chapters throughout the United States. The mission of the ACS is to prevent cancer and save lives.