Treating Ovarian Cancer: The "Cancer That Whispers"
- Actress Bridgette Wilson-Sampras’ tennis star husband Pete Sampras has revealed his wife’s been battling ovarian cancer since December 2022.
- Bridgette, known for her role as Fran Donolly in “The Wedding Planner,” is fighting cancer alongside her loving husband, and their two sons, 20-year-old Christian and 18-year-old Ryan.
- Ovarian cancer has been called the “cancer that whispers” because women often don’t experience symptoms until their cancer has already reached its late stages. The symptoms that do appear at first are hard to identify as cancer.
- This subtlety of symptoms makes it essential for women to know the warning signs, and report them to their doctor, say SurvivorNet’s experts.
- SurvivorNet offers a comprehensive guide to ovarian cancer features advice from some of the nation’s top gynecologic oncologists, to guide you through every stage of the diagnosis and treatment process. Check out SN Local, featuring 20 cities across the U.S., to explore expertise and community near you.
Bridgette, known for playing Fran Donolly in the 2001 romantic comedy film “The Wedding Planner,” is fighting cancer alongside the ongoing support of her loving husband, and their two sons, 20-year-old Christian and 18-year-old Ryan.Read More
“Last December, my wife, Bridgette, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Since then, she has had major surgery, pushed through chemotherapy and continues with targeted maintenance therapy.”
A message from Pete 🙏 pic.twitter.com/ZReXGOCUQs
— ATP Tour (@atptour) October 29, 2023
He explained, “It is hard to watch someone you love go through a challenge like this.
“However, seeing our boys step up and be such strong supporters of Bridgette, myself and each other has been amazing.”
Pete, who married Bridgette in 2000, added, “Watching Bridgette continue to be an incredible mom and wife through it all has been inspiring, concluding with a request for “thoughts and prayers.”
He continued, “I have also learned that it is very hard to reach for support when something is simply too hard to talk about.
“With that said, I am humbling asking for good thoughts and prayers for our family as Bridgette continues to thrive on her healing journey.”
SurvivorNet offers a comprehensive guide to ovarian cancer features advice from some of the nation’s top gynecologic oncologists, to guide you through every stage of the diagnosis and treatment process.
Check out SN Local, featuring 20 cities across the U.S., to explore expertise and community near you.
Ovarian Cancer Overview
Ovarian cancer has been called the “cancer that whispers,” because women often don’t experience symptoms until their cancer has already reached its late stages.
The symptoms that do appear at first are hard to identify as cancer. This subtlety of symptoms makes it essential for women to know the warning signs, and report them to their doctor, say SurvivorNet’s experts.
The term ovarian cancer refers to a number of different tumors that grow in the ovary. The ovaries produce the sex hormone, estrogen, as well as eggs. Every woman has two ovaries, one on either side of her uterus. The fallopian tube picks up the egg from the ovary and carries it to the uterus for fertilization.
Many ovarian cancers actually begin in the fallopian tubes. A few cancerous cells first grow on the fallopian tubes and then, as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary, these cells stick to the ovaries and eventually grow to form a tumor.
Expert Ovarian Cancer Resources
- Ovarian Cancer – The Importance of Increasing Diversity in Clinical Trials
- Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis: The Importance of Biomarkers
- The Importance of Genetic Testing For Ovarian Cancer Maintenance Therapy
- The Importance of Second Opinions for Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
- Ovarian Cancer Survivor Stresses the Importance of Finding the Right Counselor to Support You Through Your Journey
There isn’t just one ovarian cancer; there are many different types that occur at different stages of life. In fact, researchers have identified over 30 types, but these three are the most common:
- Epithelial. About 90% of ovarian cancers are epithelial, which means the cancer cells are located on the outer layer of the ovary. Most epithelial tumors are not cancerous, but when they are cancerous, they can spread before they’re detected.
- Stromal. This rare type of tumor forms in the connective tissue that holds the ovary together and produces estrogen and progesterone.
- Germ cell. These tumors, which develop in the cells that produce the eggs, are more likely to affect a single ovary, rather than both ovaries. When a teen or young woman is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it’s usually the germ cell type. The good news is that most women with these types of ovarian cancers can be cured.
According to the medical oncologists SurvivorNet consulted, the symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- A feeling of bloating or fullness
- Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
- Changes in bowel habits
- Bleeding from the vagina (especially after menopause)
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Pain or pressure in the pelvis
- Belly or back pain
- Feeling full too quickly, or having difficulty eating
- A change in urinary or bowel habits, such as a more frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation
- Extreme fatigue
- Pain during sex
“We don’t have a good screening method, but if you have symptoms, it’s very important that you go to your physician because there might be an opportunity that we can detect it when it’s still early stage,” Dr. Jose Alejandro Rauh-Hain, a gynecologic oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
“It’s very important that patients are not afraid to ask questions to their physicians. Because the sooner we can diagnose the cancer, the better that prognosis.”
The ovaries produce the sex hormone, estrogen, as well as eggs. Every woman has two ovaries, one on either side of her uterus. The fallopian tube picks up the egg from the ovary and carries it to the uterus for fertilization.
Many ovarian cancers begin in the fallopian tubes. A few cancerous cells first grow on the fallopian tubes and then, as the fallopian tubes brush over the ovary, these cells stick to the ovaries and eventually grow to form a tumor.
Dr. Beth Karlan, Gynecologic Oncologist at UCLA Medical Center explained to SurvivorNet in an earlier interview, “There’s different kinds of ovarian cancer that affect women in different decades of life.
“The most common type of ovarian cancer, however, typically occurs around the time of the menopause, in the fifth decade.”
No routine screening tests are recommended for women who are at average or low risk for ovarian cancer because symptoms are hard to distinguish from everyday ailments such as an upset stomach.
However, women at higher risk of ovarian which include women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer should consider screening.
Screening is available for women with:
- A family history of ovarian cancer
- An inherited genetic condition like Lynch syndrome
- A mutation in a gene called BRCA1 or BRCA2
- A mutation in other genes associated with hereditary ovarian cancer
- Recurring symptoms of ovarian cancer
WATCH: The Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer Are Very Vague But There Are Warning Signs To Look Out For
How Is Ovarian Cancer Graded and Staged?
Ovarian cancer can be divided into three grades of aggressiveness. The grade is not determined by the size or stage of the tumor, but rather by the behavior of the cells in the tumor.
- Grade 1 cells are the least aggressive cancer because they look most like normal ovarian tissue and are well-differentiated. Grade one ovarian cancer is less likely to spread.
- Grade 2 cells are mildly aggressive.
- Grade 3 cells are the most aggressive form of ovarian cancer and are poorly differentiated. They have a large nucleus or cell center. They divide very quickly and no longer look like normal, healthy cells. This type of cancer is most likely to spread.
Ovarian cancer can also be classified into four different stages, regardless of grade:
- Stage 1: The cancer is found only in one or both ovaries.
- Stage 2: The cancer has spread to other areas of the pelvis.
- Stage 3: The cancer has spread to the abdomen and other body parts in the abdominal region.
- Stage 4: The cancer spreads to regions beyond the abdomen.
WATCH: Ovarian Cancer Warning Signs Can Be Subtle
What Are the Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer?
A few factors might increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Having these factors doesn’t mean you will get this cancer, only that your risk is slightly higher.
Your risk for ovarian cancer may be increased if you:
- Have gone through menopause. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40.
- Have a gene mutation. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes help cells repair their DNA damage. Having a change, or mutation, in one of these genes increases your risk of getting ovarian cancer. These gene mutations are commonly passed down in families. If one of your close relatives carries a BRCA gene mutation, there’s a 50-50 chance you could be carrying it, too.
- Are overweight or obese. Being very overweight might not only affect your risk of getting ovarian cancer but also your survival if you are diagnosed with this cancer.
- Had your first pregnancy after age 35, or never carried a pregnancy to full-term. Of course, this doesn’t mean that women should have children just to protect themselves.
- Have family members with cancer. Your risk might be higher if you have close family members (such as your mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother) who have had ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer. Genes that increase the risk for these cancers run in families.
- Used hormone replacement therapy. Women who take estrogen and progesterone after menopause are at slightly higher risk than women who don’t use these hormones.
A few things might lower your risk for ovarian cancer, including:
- Having children. Giving birth, particularly to two or more children if that is your choice to do, can significantly reduce your risk for ovarian cancer.
- Using birth control pills for five or more years. However, hormonal birth control also comes with its risks, which women should consider when choosing to take them.
- Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding for as little as one to three months can reduce the risk of the deadliest type of invasive ovarian cancer.
- Having surgery. Surgery to get your tubes tied, remove both ovaries or remove the uterus (hysterectomy), might lower your risk for ovarian cancer. However, surgery comes with its risks.
How Is Ovarian Cancer Treated?
If doctors can safely remove your ovarian cancer, this is almost always, at least in consideration, as the first treatment step. SurvivorNet has extensive resources on this procedure, called “debulking.”
The Different Kinds of Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer is officially staged and graded through surgery to determine its extent.
“The current treatment that we’re going to give you, the standard treatment, is in existence because thousands of women have participated in studies, Dr. Dana Chase, a gynecologic oncologist at Arizona Oncology, tells SurvivorNet.
With ovarian cancer, the standard of care (whether after surgery or before) is a “very, very effective” chemotherapy. When ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed, according to Dr. Chase, they are usually given chemotherapy, which puts about 80% of patients into remission, at least for some time.
After initial treatment which often involves surgery and chemotherapy, your doctor may recommend a form of maintenance therapy.
WATCH: PARP Inhibitor drug for ovarian cancer treatment.
“We use some maintenance therapies with chemo and then continue them after chemo, such as Avastin while others we use after chemo, such as Olaparib,” Dr. Chase explains.
A growing number of women diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer are eligible for treatment with a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors. PARP inhibitors are options for women as maintenance therapy after the first chemotherapy or platinum-sensitive recurrence or as a treatment for recurrence.
Power of Support
A cancer diagnosis can be extremely stressful. One way SurvivorNet experts encourage cancer patients to alleviate some of that stress by leaning on their support system, just as Bridgette is doing with her family.
A support system can be made up of loved ones like family and friends. It can also be comprised of strangers who have come together because of a shared cancer experience. Mental health professionals can also be critical parts of a support system.
WATCH: Sharing Details About Your Cancer Diagnosis.
“Some people don’t need to go outside of their family and friend’s circle. They feel like they have enough support there,” psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik told SurvivorNet.
“But for people who feel like they need a little bit more, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional,” Dr. Plutchik added.
Dr. Plutchik also stressed it is important for people supporting cancer warriors to understand their emotions can vary day-to-day.
“People can have a range of emotions, they can include fear, anger, and these emotions tend to be fluid. They can recede and return based on where someone is in the process,” she explained.
Meanwhile, Dr. Charmain Jackman, a licensed psychologist and founder of InnoPsych, echoes SurvivorNet experts on the benefits of positive mental health while facing a health diagnosis.
Dr. Jackman explained, “In the face of a life-threatening diagnosis, fear, hopelessness, and despair can quickly take space in your mind. However, your mindset is a superpower and can be a potent antidote to illness.
“Practicing gratitude, cultivating joy, and connecting to the community are practical ways to develop a resilient mindset.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff