I reached a milestone a few months ago. In May, I marked five years as an ovarian cancer survivor. After my initial diagnosis, I had two recurrences, but my oncology team says you’re a survivor as soon as you’re diagnosed because you’re alive. Since completing chemotherapy for the second recurrence, I’ve been in remission for 15 months. I don’t use the term “cancer free” because cancer can be present even when it’s not detectable on a scan.
The five-year survival rate is dubious. That statistic reveals only the percentage of people still alive five years after their diagnosis. It doesn’t indicate whether they’ve had any recurrences or how healthy they are in general. I used to think that surviving five years after a cancer diagnosis meant you were unlikely to get it again. That’s not universally true.
For someone diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer like me, the five-year survival rate is 57%, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s considerably smaller than the 73% survival rate for Stage IIB patients, but much better than the 17% survival rate for Stage IV patients. Staging refers to how much cancer is in someone’s body and where it is. This is another thing I didn’t know before my own diagnosis.
How much do you know about ovarian cancer? This is a good time to find out because September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The national organization Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) has a wealth of information about the disease, including a quiz you can take at www.ocrahope.org.
The most important thing to know is there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. There are some common symptoms, but a diagnosis comes after surgery and biopsy (and probably after a patient is diagnosed with something else, such as irritable bowel syndrome).
You must be vigilant and persistent. Pay attention to these symptoms and see a gynecologist if they last for more than two weeks and are unusual for you: bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; difficulty eating or feeling full quickly; or urgent or frequent urination. Some people also experience back pain or changes in bowel habits. Talk with the gynecologist about ovarian cancer and ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist.
I’ve experienced highs and lows since my original diagnosis. A great oncology team and a wonderful support system that includes other survivors have been key to my survival. The maintenance treatment I’ve been on since July 2019 is an oral medication that wasn’t available five years ago. But sadly, three ovarian cancer survivors I’ve befriended in recent years have died in the past 16 months. Ovarian cancer is the 11th-most common cancer among women, but it’s the fifth-leading cause of women’s cancer-related deaths and the deadliest gynecologic cancer.
Research is crucial for finding better treatments and eventually a cure for ovarian cancer. OutRun Ovarian Cancer (www.oroc.org), a nonprofit founded by Gretchen Nock of Bay Village, raises money for research and education, all of which stays in Northeast Ohio. OCRA also raises research money and advocates on Capitol Hill for ovarian cancer patients.
You can help by learning about the disease and sharing your knowledge. And in September, wear teal to show your support.
Molly Callahan is a freelance writer and editor who runs the blog CLE on the Cheap