A week ago, Chicagoan Amy Krouse Rosenthal died. She was 51. I didn't know her personally, but I knew of her. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary person--a prolific, gifted adult and childrens' book writer, a filmmaker and a public speaker as well as a beloved wife and mother.
Ten days before she passed away, the poignant essay she wrote about her husband, "You May Want to Marry My Husband," appeared in the New York Times and went viral, drawing over four and a half million readers online.
Hardly discussed was the fact that Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer. I hope her loved ones take solace (or at least don't mind) that I'm using her death--and life--to raise awareness about the disease.
Here are some things you should know about ovarian cancer and what you can do to protect yourself and those you love. Always consult your doctor first before seeking any kind of treatment.
Ovarian cancer symptoms may include: increased abdominal size, persistent bloating (not bloating that comes and goes), difficulty eating, feeling full quickly, abdominal and/or pelvic pain, diarrhea or constipation, needing to urinate urgently or more often, and back pain and vaginal bleeding.
When ovarian cancer is detected early, 90% of patients are likely to survive for more than five years (the length of time over which survival is normally measured when assessing cancer treatment). The survival rate for advanced stage ovarian cancer is about 30%.
One of the problems with early detection is that women may not experience symptoms in the beginning stages. Plus, ovarian cancer is one of those insidious cancers in which the symptoms, when they do show up, often mimic those of other diseases--for example, common stomach and digestive problems, and can be easily misdiagnosed.
Rosenthal thought she had appendicitis. So did my mother, who also died of the disease. Another friend of mine was diagnosed with gastrointestinal problems for months. When the doctors finally figured out that she had ovarian cancer, she was gone within weeks.
Presently, there is no way no prevent ovarian cancer. But there are two ways it can be detected early:
- Get a CA 125 blood test. It measures the amount of the protein CA 125 (cancer antigen 125) in the blood. An elevated level can indicate cancer. But some women with ovarian cancer never have an increased CA 125 level, and at the same time, many noncancerous conditions can elevate the CA 125. Despite the test's limitations and with my family history, I made the decision to get the test once a year when I see my gynecologist. The test, when used for early detection, is not normally covered by health insurance. It costs me around $75.
- Get a transvaginal ultrasound, a test that could detect tumor growth. The test is invasive. A wand is inserted vaginally. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. At least one doctor who also has a family history of ovarian cancer has the test performed once a year. This test is also not covered by health insurance for early detection purposes and is expensive. I paid around $400 (and only had it done once), but prices may vary.
Lowering your risk factors
- Take oral contraceptives. Taking birth control pills for five years has been shown to lower your risk by 50%. Still, taking birth control pills have risks and should be discussed with your doctor.
- Take an aspirin daily.
- Having had a previous pregnancy and breast-feeding lowers your risk for getting the disease.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Stay slim. Studies show that obese women (those with a body mass index of at least 30) have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.
- Getting a tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) and/or a hysterectomy may reduce your the risk of getting ovarian cancer.
- Get some exercise.
BRCA gene testing
If breast or ovarian cancer run in your family, you might consider genetic testing to see if you test positive for the BRCA gene mutations. Women who have inherited these gene mutations have an increased risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, research shows that premenopausal women who have BRCA gene mutations and have their ovaries removed reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer as well as breast cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is reduced by 85% to 95%, and the risk of breast cancer is cut by 50% or more.
Famously, Angela Jolie, whose mother, grandmother and aunt died from cancer, opted for preventive surgery and had a double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA1 mutation. In a later surgery, she had her ovaries and Fallopian tubes removed.
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