When the Killer Is Not So Silent

Ovarian cancer was long thought to be asymptomatic and mostly a threat to older white women. One survivor learned the hard way that there's no such thing as a typical victim

09HEALTH-GARCIA1-LIVE

Garcia and family members

Weighing Treatment Options
Making headway in the fight to cure this disease has been slow. Less than 20% of all cases are found in stage I, but with advances in research and treatment options, doctors and clinicians are encouraged.

“[Over the years] there has been increasing evidence that radical debulking is associated with improved survival of patients with advanced ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Kevin Holcomb, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and one of black enterprise’s leading doctors (see “America’s Leading Doctors,” May 2008). “It’s important for women with ovarian cancer to seek out doctors who have experience in treating the disease.”

There is some promising research with the medical drug thalidomide, which was used during the 1950s to treat insomnia and a host of other ailments, but was known to cause severe birth defects. Dr. Levi Downs Jr., a leading researcher at the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota, has been at the forefront of this clinical trial effectively using thalidomide in tandem with chemotherapy to treat patients whose cancer is recurrent—about 70% to 90% of all ovarian cancer cases. According to Downs, 30% of his patients have seen a complete response, meaning their cancer “went away.” Others he’s treated are showing longer cancer-free periods.

The medical community has also seen significant improvements among patients with ovarian cancer who are treated with intraperitoneal, or IP, therapy, in which chemotherapy drugs are delivered directly into the abdomen. Dr. Carol Brown, gynecologic oncologist and associate attending surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and another of be’s leading doctors, says, over the last few years, IP has become standard care for some ovarian cancer patients and has been shown to improve survival rates. Other drugs such as Avastin, commonly called a “smart bomb” drug because it cuts off the blood supply to cancerous tumors, are also improving the outlook for many patients.

Of equal importance is a patient’s personal vigilance: paying attention to your body, making sure you keep regular checkups, asking your doctor questions, seeking a second or third opinion, and speaking up when you suspect something is wrong. Personal vigilance is the most important lesson I learned from this experience. Had I not pressured the staff at my GYN’s office, my prognosis could have been fatal.

Fortunately, my pathology came back better than expected and I was diagnosed with a borderline tumor, which is a low-malignant form of the disease. I’m still undergoing treatment, but I’m on the road to recovery.

When I need a bit of encouragement to get through a tough day, I turn to the community of ovarian cancer survivors and our advocates who’ve become like my second family. An unfortunate circumstance may have brought us together, but it gave us a voice to inspire change and promote awareness.

Chana Garcia is a journalist in New York City who writes about cancer awareness and women’s health issues. For more information, visit her blog at blackgyrlcancerslayer.wordpress.com or follow Garcia on Twitter.com/garciagyrl.

Resources:

Ovarian Cancer Risks & Figures

Presidential Proclamation: National Ovarian Cancer Month

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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