After a year of experiencing the same symptoms, Mary heard about the CA-125 blood test, which measures the magnitude of one’s cancer once developed. After demanding the exam from her doctor, Mary discovered the disease living inside her ovaries. Because her disease was detected late, this mother of 4 measures her life in weeks. If Mary had known what to ask her doctor, and received the test earlier, this story would have been better.
Did you know that ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women and has the highest mortality rate of all gynecologic cancers? Or that more women die from ovarian cancer than from all other gynecologic cancers combined? If caught early, chances of beating the disease are high. However, if caught late, the statistics give you a 5-year survival rate as low as 15 percent. The majority of women, 77 percent, are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage.
Although there is currently no tool to prevent ovarian cancer or other cancers, there are ways to significantly reduce the risk of developing the disease. Here are four ways to protect yourself:
Learn your family history: if someone in your family has had cancer, you run a higher risk. Let your doctor know and ask them to monitor you on a regular basis using a variety of diagnostic tests. Ask your doctor for the BRCA-1/BRCA-2 genetic test – it is a simple blood test. Carriers of this gene mutation carry a 60 percent lifetime increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Ask your doctor about how to live healthier: there is strong evidence that a healthy lifestyle and physical activity can reduce risk of cancers and improve quality of life among cancer patients. And emerging evidence suggest its role in cancer survival.
Be your own advocate and get a second opinion: researchers have found that women experience symptoms for an average of 12 weeks before consulting a doctor, and by that time, the cancer may already be severe. Ask you doctor about available screening tests and blood exams for cancers. If your doctor is unable to discuss the available exams with you, get a second opinion by making an appointment at a “high-risk clinic.” At a high-risk clinic, a team of specialists will evaluate your medical history, ensure you receive the appropriate diagnostic tests and monitor your care.
Monitor your annual check-ups: make sure your primary care doctor and gynecologist conduct a thorough pelvic and rectal exam at every check up. It is also important to have an annual breast exam beginning at age 40 and a regular colonoscopy after age 50.
This Sunday, when I’m with my mother and my eleven sisters, I will share Mary’s story with them. I will talk about our family history and will tell them important questions they should ask their doctors. I encourage you to do the same. Share this article with women you know, and encourage them to ask their doctors about exams they can take to make sure they are safe. While it is too late to help Mary, it is not too late to help yourself by asking your doctor the right questions.