If asked when we celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you probably know the answer — October. But you may not be aware that this month — September — is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. For decades, October has been the month in which the Komen Foundation urges all to Race for the Cure, proudly wear pink, and rally around brave survivors. I lost my beloved mother to breast cancer more than 20 years ago. I will always support the cause.
But this month — September — I wear teal, rally for the cause, talk, and write about ovarian cancer. I am a survivor, and I want everyone to learn about ovarian cancer, to cheer on survivors, to help educate others and to support funding for research. We need tests to detect ovarian cancer at earlier stages, and we need improved treatments.
Ovarian Cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths for women ages 35-74; 22,000 in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year and 15,000 die each year from the disease. There are only 30,000 survivors in the United States, including me.
Compare these small numbers to the three million breast cancer survivors — women and men — in the United States. It is no wonder that research on ovarian cancer has lagged. Breast cancer can be diagnosed and treated in the early stages, resulting in more survivors, more voices, more money, more research, more cures.
Only 19 percent of ovarian cancer cases are detected in early stages. And there is no effective prescreening test, although last month researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston announced promising progress towards a screening tool.
Until effective screening tools are approved, we are left with non-specific symptoms to herald the cancer has arrived. Ovarian cancer symptoms may include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, feeling the need to urinate urgently, fatigue, upset stomach or heartburn, back pain or constipation. Given that these symptoms can be attributed to so many ailments, it is easy to understand how one can be misdiagnosed.
I try to live a healthy life. I eat well, drink lots of water and exercise daily. I practice law full-time, and I am rearing two amazing, loving and very brave children. I do not recall having any early warning symptoms. If I did, I wrote them off to life stressors.
In fact, only two weeks before my diagnosis, I had a routine checkup during which my very wise doctor told me that I was the picture of health — my lab reports were perfection.
Shortly after, on the Monday before Thanksgiving 2011, I mediated a Family Court case for 12 hours, went out to dinner, and home to sleep. The next morning I felt a dull, but growing pain in my side. This was the tumor on my ovary that had twisted and by that evening took me into emergency surgery.
My pain was a blessing. Most women don’t get a warning. Too many women lose their battle because their symptoms are not detected or their physicians misdiagnose their ovarian cancer.
All women are at risk for ovarian cancer. Those with a genetic predisposition or a personal or family history of breast, ovarian or colon cancer are at a greater risk. If you have prolonged symptoms that increase over time, please seek out a gynecological oncologist. We are fortunate to have specialists in Charleston who focus on women’s cancers.
I am blessed by the care of Dr. Jennifer Young-Pierce and her team at MUSC. I feel privileged to be a patient at the Hollings Cancer Center. In this bright and sunny place of healing I see patients smiling and optimistic because, like me, they are living with and not dying from cancer. It is a place of hope and courage.
Traditionally, there have been no teal ribbons along King Street hailing Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and there has been no ovarian cancer “Race for the Cure.”
But there are more and more people waking up to fight for a cure and to support this vital cause. We are organized, vocal, and in need of your help.
Across the country, campaigns ask people to “Paint the Town Teal”; people are racing or rowing for ovarian cancer and organizing yard sales and other events to raise money and increase awareness.
Please help us “Paint the Town Teal” with teal banners, teal ribbons and teal bracelets that ask us to “Give Voice to the Silence.”
The urgency of the cause and the need for research funding are clear. All women must watch for the warning signs of ovarian cancer.
Please join me in concert with the Lowcountry Women with Wings (www.lowcountrywomenwithwings.org), the South Carolina Ovarian Cancer Foundation (www.scovariancancer.org), and the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC at www.ovarian.org) in learning about the disease, talking to others, donating if you are able, and painting your toenails teal.
It will make you happy.
Anne Frances Bleecker is a local lawyer and an ovarian cancer survivor.