Catching Ovarian Cancer Early
- 24-year-old Nicole Burke from Tampa, Fla. was diagnosed with a rare type of ovarian cancer after experiencing bloating as her only symptom.
- Luckily, doctors were able to remove the seven-pound tumor, and determined that Nicole was clear of cancer.
- With ovarian cancer, there is a lack of effective screening measures which means that it is even more important to watch for symptoms of ovarian cancer, and talk to your doctor as soon as possible if they arise.
This subtype was mucinous ovarian cancer (MOC). According to the NIH, “early-stage MOC carries an excellent prognosis, with advanced disease having a poor outcome.”Read More
Nicole brought up the issue at a routine medical appointment, and to be on the safe side, luckily her doctor ordered a pelvic ultrasound. “I did not feel like it was necessary to go and pay for an ultrasound. I had no pain or any symptoms or anything out of the ordinary,” Nicole recalled.
Her doctor determined that the bloating in her stomach was due to an ectopic pregnancy, which is when a fertilized egg grows outside of the womb.
“I was so stunned and speechless, and so heartbroken. I couldn’t believe anything that was happening,” Nicole said. She needed an emergency surgery and was told to remain very still. “They were afraid that any sudden movement would make this burst and I’d bleed out,” she said.
Once in the ER, however, there were a handful of doctors in disagreement of what this growth actually was inside of her: an ectopic pregnancy, a mass, a cyst, a tumor.
“By the end of the day I went home from the hospital not knowing what was inside of me,” she reported of the terrifying experience.
A specialist at Tampa General Hospital removed a seven-pound mass connected to one of Nicole’s ovaries, along with a Fallopian tube and her appendix.
Burke underwent surgery to remove the mass, which weighed seven pounds and was connected to one of her ovaries. Surgeons also had to remove the ovary in question, as well as a Fallopian tube and her appendix.
A few weeks later, Nicole was shocked to find out it was ovarian cancer.
“I was so sure that it wasn’t going to be cancer. I didn’t even let the word cancer come out of my mouth before that moment,” she said, adding that her eyes “welled up with tears” while processing the news. “I just could not believe it.”
Thankfully, her medical team caught the cancer early, and all cells appeared to have been removed during surgery.
“I’m so grateful that it turned out this way,” Burke said. “Many women who have ovarian cancer catch it too late. That is unfortunately the truth about this cancer. It acts fast and silent.”
Now, Nicole is urging other women—and men—to always “take that extra step” with your health. “See your doctors every single year, mention anything that could be of concern. Exercise more frequently, eat better. Take care of your health not just physically but also mentally and emotionally.”
Understanding Ovarian Cancer
If you don’t have any symptoms, and you don’t have a high risk hereditary cancer syndrome, then the current recommendations are that you shouldn’t get screened for ovarian cancer. The screenings aren’t reliable enough, and might do more harm than good.
However, if you do have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to an inherited genetic syndrome, then screening might well be a good idea, although it hasn’t been proven that this would up your chances of survival.
But as Dr. Jose Alejandro Rauh-Hain from the MD Anderson Cancer Center says, your best chance of catching the cancer early is to go to your physician with any symptoms immediately. These symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits.
But don’t be backward about coming forward. “It’s very important the patients are not afraid to ask questions to their physicians,’ Dr Rauh-Hain tells SurvivorNet. “It’s important that they not be afraid of asking those questions, because the sooner we can diagnose the cancer, the better the prognosis.”
Knowing what symptoms to look for and alerting your doctor if you spot them can make a big difference in your treatment and prognosis. Catching cancers in their early stages leads to better outcomes.
“Ovarian cancer is sometimes referred to as ‘the cancer that whispers,’ simply because it’s kind of hard to catch,” says Dr. Derrick Haslem, medical oncologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Logan, Utah, near Salt Lake City.
While we have procedures in place to screen for other cancers, like Pap smears to test for cervical cancer and mammograms for breast cancer, the equivalent widespread test simply does not exist for ovarian cancer. A transvaginal ultrasound can detect growths in the ovaries and pelvis, but it’s expensive and it isn’t practical as a screening test, so it’s only used for women who are already suspected of having ovarian cancer.
The lack of effective screening measures means that it is even more important to watch for symptoms of ovarian cancer, and talk to your doctor as soon as possible if they arise.