Ovarian cancer continues to claim many Canadian lives
19 September 2011
Catterina McDonald was 40 years old when she found out she was expecting her first child. She was thrilled. She and her husband had been married for 17 years and had been unable to conceive. After an uneventful pregnancy, she gave birth by C-section to a healthy baby girl.
Six weeks later, at her first post-partum checkup, Catterina’s doctor in Saskatoon was concerned that her uterus felt too large and sent her for an ultrasound the next day. The ultrasound showed that she had a large mass in her abdomen measuring 19.8 centimetres (8 inches) in diameter – about the size of a soccer ball.
The mass was surgically removed a few days later. Then, within a couple of weeks, the diagnosis: an aggressive form of ovarian cancer – mucinous adenocarcinoma.
While Catterina’s diagnosis was shocking, it is not uncommon for symptoms of ovarian cancer to be missed. In fact, ovarian cancer in its early stages often does not cause any obvious symptoms and there is no reliable screening test or tool for early detection.
“I remember coming home that day and telling my sister-in-law, who was taking care of the baby, that I had ovarian cancer. It was like life was standing still and I couldn’t believe what I was saying.”
If caught early, ovarian cancer can be successfully treated but about 75% of cases are diagnosed at advanced stages. Despite improvements in surgical techniques and chemotherapy, the five year relative survival rate for advanced stage ovarian cancer patients is only 15 to 25%.
“The hardest decision of my life was whether to have a total abdominal hysterectomy or to play Russian roulette and assume that they had got all the cancer during the first surgery,” she says. “I wanted to have another baby more than anything in the world but I also wanted to be around to watch my daughter grow up.”
Catterina opted for the radical hysterectomy. This time, the news was good – the cancer had been caught early. “We waited for the pathology report, not knowing if chemo or other treatments would follow, but we were told that the cancer had not spread beyond my ovary.”
Seven years later, Catterina remains cancer-free but the experience had been life-changing. “It took a long time for me to face the trauma that I had experienced. I needed to find someone to talk to so I called the Canadian Cancer Society’s peer support program, CancerConnection. They matched me up with one of their trained volunteers who had been through a similar diagnosis and experience. She was a great support for me.”
Catterina’s daughter is now 7 years old. “I am enjoying being a mom and celebrating the beauty of each day.”
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
“Ovarian cancer affects thousands of Canadian women and their families every year,” says Heather Chappell, the Canadian Cancer Society’s director of cancer control policy. “Continuing research and awareness will be key to finding better ways to detect and treat this devastating disease.”
About ovarian cancer
There are several different types of ovarian cancer. While every case is different, ovarian cancer in its early stages often does not cause any obvious symptoms. It is sometimes called “the cancer that whispers.” When symptoms do arise, they can be vague and easily mistaken for more common problems. Symptoms can include:
- abdominal discomfort, pressure or pain or swelling
- change in bowel habits
- feeling full after a light meal
- indigestion or gas
Often these symptoms are caused by other health problems, not cancer. If you have symptoms that increase in intensity or severity or last longer than 2 to 3 weeks, don’t ignore them. Contact your doctor. Know your body.
Screening and early detection
There is currently no reliable screening test or tool for the early detection of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer statistics
About 2,600 Canadian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year and 1,750 will die from it. If caught early, ovarian cancer can be successfully treated but about 75% of cases are diagnosed at advanced stages. Despite advances in surgical techniques and chemotherapy, the five-year relative survival rate for advanced stage ovarian cancer patients is only 15 to 25%.
There is no single cause of ovarian cancer, but studies have suggested that some factors appear to increase the risk of developing it:
- age – particularly after 50
- personal history of cancer
- family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer or colon, uterine or pancreatic cancer
- never having been pregnant
- taking hormone replacement therapy (especially estrogen-only therapy) for a long period of time
- exposure to asbestos
Other possible risk factors are being studied. Some women develop ovarian cancer without any of these risk factors. Most women with ovarian cancer do not have a family history of the disease. Also, many women who have risk factors do not get ovarian cancer.
What the Canadian Cancer Society is doing
The Society is currently funding nearly $1 million in ovarian cancer research to better prevent, detect and treat ovarian cancer, including:
- a prevention study looking at the possible roles of vitamin D, anti‑inflammatory medications and talcum powder in the development of ovarian cancer
- a study focusing on how a group of proteins (called BMPs) that are produced by ovarian cancer cells help to fuel the growth of ovarian cancer. Understanding the initial molecular changes that can cause normal cells of the ovary to become cancer cells will help lead to new strategies for prevention and early detection of ovarian cancer
- a study of how ovarian cancers begin, how they progress, what hormones affect their rate of growth and what new treatments can reduce tumour size.
If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you probably have many questions and concerns. We offer a broad range of support services and information for people living with cancer, their caregivers, family and friends. For more information, please call us toll-free at 1 888 939-3333, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website www.cancer.ca or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.