Ovarian cancer – silence it with awareness

By Reade Brower | Sep 14, 2017

“Shadow owes its birth to light.”

— John Gay, poet and dramatist (1685-1732)


This week I would like to cede my column to my wife, Martha McSweeney Brower. Her message is not only timely (September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month), but important, in an intimate way, to me and my family, and we want to share it with you.

Martha’s story below is one of standing up for herself; if she had listened to the advice of her doctors, she would be a statistic. Advocating and knowing her body saved her life. In 1998 she was her own hero; now she wants you, whether you are a woman or a man, to read her story and to advocate for yourself, or to support and help advocate for someone you love.

Below is Martha’s story:

Please, tell your wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, grandmothers: Ovarian cancer whispers, so listen.

September of 1998 was the first National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. That very month, I was starting chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. My boys were 7, 9, and 11 at the time.

For the past 19 years, I have put my experience with cancer behind me and have been living my life with a lot more gusto.

But I want to make sure that all women are aware of its signs and symptoms. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths (including Gilda Radner, Laura Nyro, and Coretta Scott King) than any other cancer of the reproductive system, mainly because two-thirds of patients are diagnosed too late. “Ovarian cancer whispers ... so listen” is the motto. I was vigilant because it ran in my family, and I believe that knowing the symptoms saved my life.

My local family practitioner insisted that there was nothing wrong with me when I went to him in the early spring of 1998 with five of the seven vague symptoms that had persisted for more than six weeks. Three times I asked him for a referral, once in the form of a diagram of my family cancer history that included three maternal relatives with ovarian cancer (one being my mother). Three times he insisted he could take care of everything in his office. Three times he performed gynecological procedures (once in the presence of a medical student who was in the process of learning how to turn a deaf ear to a woman’s health concerns). Two of those times he was unable to obtain results from the procedures he did because he did not know how to do them. When I asked if I could have a CA-125 marker test for it, he said, “No. It wouldn’t do any good. Ovarian cancer has no symptoms at all. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s always too late.”

I got myself into a GYN office and two weeks later had surgery for Stage 1 ovarian cancer. (Originally the diagnosis was Stage 2). It hadn’t gotten to lymph nodes. It hadn’t spread anywhere.

Yes, the symptoms are vague, and often there are no obvious symptoms until the disease has advanced. But if a woman is aware, perhaps she has more of a chance not to be included in the frightening statistics of ovarian cancer.

The following information is from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Its website is ovarian.org. During my treatments, the chat rooms on that site were invaluable to me and gave me such hope from other women struggling, too.

What are the Risks?

One or more of the following characteristics puts you at above-average risk:

• Family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer

• Personal history of breast cancer, endometrial cancer, colon cancer

• Uninterrupted ovulation — no pregnancies, birth control use, and infertility

• Exposure to talc or asbestos

• Increasing age

• Breast-Ovarian Cancer Syndromes, Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry

• Fertility drugs taken for more than three cycles has been liked to an increased risk.

Symptoms: They Whisper ... So Listen!

The symptoms may include:

• Vague but persistent gastrointestinal complaints such as gas, nausea, indigestion

• Frequency and/or urgency of urination

• Any unexplained change in bowel habits, abnormal post-menopausal bleeding, weight gain or loss

• Abnormal swelling and/or pain; bloating and/or a feeling of fullness

• Pain during intercourse

If vague symptoms persist longer than four to six weeks, insist on a thorough recto-vaginal examination.

“Too many women are dying from ovarian cancer. Hundreds of women tell their story to us and the vast majority believe, as I do, that the lack of information about ovarian cancer is an important factor in why so many women are diagnosed when it is already too late. We know that the disease is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms are vague; however, if a woman feels bad enough to seek medical help, those vague symptoms may very well save her life. That’s why we must do everything possible to ensure that physicians are not discounting ovarian cancer too quickly when making a diagnosis and that women are empowered to raise the index of suspicion when being examined."

— Gail Hayward, founder and president of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. Hayward passed away in 2000.

This is the 19th annual National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Penelope Ray | Sep 15, 2017 19:57

Bless you for sharing your experience!   Thank goodness you advocated for yourself, and shame on the medical professionals who dissed your knowledge of your own body and wisdom.   The world is a better place for having your presence and your sharing is a gift.

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