Health: Take Early Action and Live
photography by Janet Warlick
One in 58 women will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime … when found in Stage 1, this disease has a 90-percent, five-year survival rate. However, only 19 to 30 percent of cases are found this early … before the cancer has spread beyond the ovaries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer annually. One reason women are diagnosed in the later stages of ovarian cancer is due to its symptoms — pain or pressure in the abdomen or pelvic areas; back pain; bloating; feeling full quickly when eating; changes in bathroom habits; or vaginal bleeding — are all vague symptoms, that could be attributed to other illnesses and are symptoms that are easily ignored. Another major contributor to late diagnosis: there is no one simple test for ovarian cancer … Pap smears do not test for ovarian cancer. Often, women simply have to act on instinct and be persistent when “something just doesn’t seem right.”
Shann Nobles, 47, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer 2005. “I was, and am, in good health. One day, I just happened to notice a weird sensation in my groin during urination.” Initially, Nobles thought it was “nothing,” but after two weeks or so, she mentioned it to her mother and a friend who both insisted she make an appointment and have her physician investigate.
“My doctor sent me for an ultrasound. I knew something was up when the technician called a doctor in to take a look. They called a few days later,” Nobles said. Doctors had also conducted blood tests and found the cancer antigen 125, known as CA-125, at elevated levels in her body.
CA-125 is a protein that is present on the surface of some ovarian cancer cells. However, the use of this test diagnostically in women who’ve not had cancer or who don’t have a family history of cancer is widely debated; one reason may be because the protein can be found in non-cancer cells as well, and because some ovarian cancers may not produce enough of the protein to be detected by the test (ovarian.org).
Doctors found and removed by surgery a tumor the size of a grapefruit and performed a total hysterectomy; Nobles underwent her last session of chemotherapy in February 2006. “I tolerated chemo pretty well. I lost my hair, but I got cute hats, caps and bandannas. I was a little sad — I thought chemo was supposed to make you lose weight,” Nobles said, laughing. “I just tried to keep a positive attitude throughout the process.”
Her cancer was Stage 1. She considers herself fortunate, as she had no other symptoms — just as Debra Myton didn’t. Myton, 43, was diagnosed in June 2005 … as a result of her annual exam and a routine Pap smear. “I’ve always been healthy,” Myton said. “My husband actually took the call initially. My doctor said my Pap smear came back showing a lot of ovarian cells in my uterus, and that something was wrong. He recommended I see an oncologist.” Myton’s husband Clausey felt alarmed. “I didn’t know what an oncologist is — I didn’t have any experience with cancer. My husband had. I said ‘Calm down. It’ll be fine.’ I don’t have a history of cancer in my family, so while I decided to follow up, I dismissed the idea of cancer. I said ‘You act like it’s a big deal. I’m fine.’” Myton added, “I know Pap smears are not a test for ovarian cancer, so I know it had to be God.”
Myton met with Dr. Lawrence Bandy, a gynecological oncologist, who performed a total hysterectomy. “A normal ovary is the size of a pecan. One of mine was the size of an egg, the other, the size of an orange,” she said. It was then she remembered the physician who delivered the youngest of her two daughters had advised her to “keep watch as her ovaries were enlarged.” “If I’d known about ovarian cancer, I would have had them removed then. My youngest daughter was born in September 2002; just a little over two years later, the size of my ovaries had doubled.”
Myton underwent six rounds of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from metastasizing in her body, and she’s been cancer free since. Looking back, she realizes her bloated stomach — “no matter how much I exercised, I couldn’t get rid of the ‘baby fat’ in my stomach” — was probably a symptom. She advises women to pay attention to their bodies. “Be in tune with your body. Most women know when something is wrong. It’s important to take action.”
A call to action is just what Amy Lasseigne, founder and chairman of the board for the Arkansas Ovarian Cancer Coalition (AOCC), works for through her organization. AOCC’s mission is to raise awareness, to get information to the community at large and the medical community. Artists for Ovaries raises money to enable the organization to print pamphlets, brochures, etc., for distribution at health fairs, trade shows and to rent billboards.
“We want to ensure people are aware of the signs. To cause women to act … if you don’t like the answer the first doctor gives, seek another opinion. Keep pursuing until you are confident in your diagnosis. Ask for an ultrasound, a CA125 test … take charge of your health,” Lasseigne said.
Artists for Ovaries is an annual fundraiser; it will be held at 6:30 p.m., Sept. 23 at the Junior League of Little Rock Building, 401 S. Scott St., Little Rock. It will include two silent auctions — one featuring artwork by cancer survivors and a second one with artwork from professional artists, such as Robin Steves, Tod Crites, Gabriel Solis and others — with 80 pieces at various price points. There will also be food, wine, beer, music and their signature drink Tealtinis, the official color of ovarian cancer awareness.
To purchase tickets — $25/person or $40/couple or $30 at the door — call (501) 551-2738 or go online at arkansasovariancancer.org.