Ovarian Cancer: the Silent Killer

Reporter: Amy Oshier
Published: Updated:

One in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer during their lifetime. One challenge is while treatments are getting better, screening is not. Doctors believe greater awareness is the key.

It is rare to use the words ‘lucky’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence. But Betty Allen’s story marries the two. “I was lucky. I was very lucky,” says Allen.

Purely by chance, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 17 years ago. Following a fall, Allen was sent for an MRI. During the screening, her radiologist spotted something suspicious. “And then he sent her to a gynecology oncologist. And at that point, they decided to do a total hysterectomy,” explained her daughter Sharie Kearns. “And then he came out and said it was ovarian cancer Stage 1.”

The early-stage diagnosis likely saved Allen’s life. Gynecologic oncologist Edward Grendys said when he started practicing thirty years ago, the survival rate for ovarian cancer was only about one year. That has changed today due to better treatments.

“If we’re able to detect it at early stages. It is highly curable, probably neighborhood of 85 to 90%. The problem is, it’s very difficult to detect early,” Dr. Grendys said.

Ovarian cancer is sometimes referred to as the Silent Killer. It starts in the ovaries, where eggs are formed. Women typically don’t feel anything until it spreads to the belly or pelvis.

“Most women have very nonspecific symptoms; slight bloating, slight abdominal distension, some mild constipation, occasionally a little bit of mild vaginal bleeding. But those are also such common things in today’s society, that they’re commonly just overlooked,” said Grendys.

This is why the majority of cases are diagnosed at Stage 3 or 4. Ovarian cancer cannot be picked up during a PAP test. Risk factors include genetics, old age and obesity. Grendys believes awareness is critical to better outcomes. “It’s vigilance. It’s looking for changes in what is their normal body performance.”

Looking back, Allen realized she had symptoms but never suspected anything serious. Her daughter is grateful for the chance events that led to her mom’s early diagnosis. “I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I get to still see my mother every day. And I want other women to feel the same.”

Sharie Kearns launched the Betty Allen Gynecological Cancer Foundation to bring attention to female cancers. Some of which are linked to the BRCA gene.

Knowing the cancer risks and symptoms could mean the difference between life and death.

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