Health: Due Diligence can Help Defeat Disease
Photography by Janet Warlick
It started with a low-grade fever — just 99.3. But after three weeks, Tracy Roberts of Mount Ida, Ark., thought she’d better see her general practice physician. “I just knew I didn’t feel well,” said the 44-year-old single mother.
It was June 2005. Her doctor diagnosed her with diverticulitis, an infection of the colon. He prescribed a round of antibiotics and sent her home. “I felt better for a few days, but then the fever came back. So I returned and the doctor decided to do an x-ray. He saw that I was ‘impacted.’ We laughed and joked that about — he said, ‘You’re just full of poop.’ She was given a second round of antibiotics and put on a high-fiber diet. When Roberts’ fever returned, her doctor decided to do a vaginal ultrasound. He found a mass on her ovary and sent her to her gynecologist, who determined the mass was a cyst and scheduled her to have it removed; the procedure was expected to take 45 minutes with an hour-long recovery time.
Six hours later, Roberts woke to find she had Stage 2 ovarian cancer, a discovery made during her surgery.
“The tumor was the size of a large grapefruit; it was in my left ovary and had ‘fingers’ that ran along the backside of my uterus and had started to surround my right ovary,” she said. “It was a complete shock. I was 38 years old. I wasn’t sick, and I had none of the risk factors.” She had gone into the surgery with the thought that it was a simple procedure. “It was like a slap in the face.”
She was referred to Dr. Juan Roman at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. There she was treated for blood clots; had a staging surgery, which she explained as a procedure to “wash the abdomen cavity and analysis of the fluid”; and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, Roberts later developed cysts in her rectum and six weeks after completing chemotherapy, had another surgery for what doctors believe may have been more of the ovarian cancer or perhaps colorectal cancer.
It was mid-2007 before Roberts’ life seemed to return to “normal.” “I remember thinking I’d never be able to get out of bed, but I knew things were getting better when I could get up and go outside, play with my dog and work in my flower bed … go to one of my son’s baseball games.”
Tales like Roberts’ are, unfortunately, not uncommon to Amy Lasseigne, co-founder of the Arkansas Ovarian Cancer Coalition (AOCC). She serves as the organization’s communications director. Her mother Suzanne Holland was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007 and has bravely fought the disease four times thus far.
Lasseigne said since the AOCC was formed three years ago, the number of women diagnosed has grown.
“I’ve seen younger women being diagnosed; however, I haven’t seen any progress in women being diagnosed earlier. What has improved is the treatment and life expectancy.” The statistics are alarming. “In 2011, 140 women in Arkansas died of ovarian cancer. This year, 240 Arkansans will be diagnosed, and it’s estimated that 150 women will die. Overall, in the United States, 15,500 will lose the battle.”
The AOCC is a volunteer-driven organization. They work to raise funds to help raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms. They produce literature and distribute it throughout the state. A second chapter has been established in the River Valley area, and recently held “Teal Night in Tahiti,” to raise funds to help with efforts to reach rural areas, the River Valley region in Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. The office is in Fort Smith, and Blanche West acts as coordinator.
The AOCC’s mission remains clear: “Listen to your body. Be aware of what’s going on in your body. Go to the doctor right away when you [sense something is wrong] and ask them to check you for ovarian cancer, if you experience the typical symptoms,” Lasseigne said.
The signs/symptoms include: bloating; pelvic or abdominal pain; trouble eating or feeling full quickly; urinary changes such as urgency or going frequently.
“We would also like to see doctors run further tests when they see women with gastrointestinal problems,” Lasseigne said. “If there’s concern, perform tumor markers; give rectal and vaginal exams and pelvic ultrasounds. Ultimately, if there is a problem, refer women to surgical oncologists.”
Roberts admits that she fears the cancer will return; thus any time she experiences anything out of the ordinary, she promptly visits her doctor. She advises others with symptoms to do the same.
“Don’t think that just because you are current with your tests, like PAP smears, that everything is fine. Be diligent. Listen to your body — you know your body. Be your own advocate.”
Test Your Ovarian Cancer IQ
Answer True or False to these 10 questions
1. Ovarian cancer can be detected by a Pap test.
2. The majority of ovarian cancers are detected at an advanced stage.
3. Most people who develop ovarian cancer have a family history of ovarian cancer.
4. Birth control pills reduce the risk for developing ovarian cancer.
5. The gene for hereditary ovarian cancer may be passed from father to daughter.
6. For the general population, CA125 is an effective screening test for ovarian cancer.
7. Most women with ovarian cancer have symptoms months before diagnosis.
8. Some women who develop breast cancer may be at increased risk for developing ovarian cancer and vice versa.
9. Exercise, a healthy diet and weight control are preventive measures for many cancers.
10. Having one’s ovaries removed eliminates the chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Answers To Ovarian Cancer IQ Quiz
1. FALSE. No consistently-reliable, accurate screening test to detect ovarian cancer exists. The following tests are available: annual vaginal exam for women, 18 and older and annual rectovaginal exam for women, 35 and older; transvaginal sonography for women, especially those at high risk; and blood test to determine if the level of a tumor marker called CA125 has increased in the blood for women at high risk.
2. TRUE. Unfortunately, almost 70 percent of women with the common epithelial ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until the disease is advanced in stage, i.e., has spread to the upper abdomen (stage III) or beyond (stage IV).
3. FALSE. Although many women have a family history of ovarian and/or breast cancer, only about 5 to 10 percent of ovarian cancers are thought to be the result of an inherited cancer susceptibility gene.
4. TRUE. Birth control pills reduce the risk of ovarian cancer; women who use them 3 years or more have about a 30 percent to 50 percent lower risk of developing ovarian cancer.
5. TRUE. If a woman inherits an alteration, or mutation, in one of her BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes from either of her parents, her chances of developing ovarian and breast cancer are significantly higher than that of the general population
6. FALSE. Unfortunately CA125 is even less reliable for detecting cancer in pre-menopausal women since it is frequently elevated by non-cancerous conditions such as pregnancy, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, liver disease and benign ovarian cysts.
7. TRUE. While the symptoms of ovarian cancer — particularly in the early stages — are often not acute or intense, they are not silent (they may be falsely attributed to other causes).
8. TRUE. A strong family history of uterine, colon or other gastrointestinal cancers may indicate the presence of a syndrome known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), which confers a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer.
9. TRUE. According to the American Cancer Society, eating right, being active and maintaining a healthy weight are important ways to reduce your risk of cancer as well as other diseases.
10. FALSE. The removal of one’s ovaries eliminates risk for ovarian cancer, but not risk for a less common cancer called Primary Peritoneal Carcinoma. Primary Peritoneal Carcinoma is closely rated to epithelial ovarian cancer, the most common type.
Source: National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, ovarian.org
The AOCC is sponsoring two events this month.
The first is a balloon release at 4 p.m., Sept. 2 at the Little Rock RiverMarket during which Gov. Beebe will proclaim September Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.
The second is the fourth annual Artists for Ovaries, at 6:30 p.m., Sept. 21, at the Junior League of Little Rock Headquarters, 401 S. Scott St., Little Rock, 72201. The evening will include food and drinks and the silent auction during which several themed baskets and 40 works of art — paintings, pottery and jewelry — will be available. Tickets are $25 each in advance, $40 per couple and $30 each at the door.
For further information or to purchase tickets, log onto arkansasovariancancer.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.