September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. In 2016, the American Cancer Society estimates that roughly 22,280 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 14,240 women will die due to ovarian cancer. It is the 5th highest cause of cancer related deaths in women. It usually impacts older women, but can be diagnosed at any age. There is also a higher incidence of ovarian cancer in women who are BRCA+. Other risk factors that may increase risk include infertility, a history of endometriosis and the use of post menopausal hormone replacement therapies.
Ovarian cancer is often referred to as “the silent killer,” meaning that there are few noticeable symptoms until the disease has progressed to an advanced stage. There are also no reliable or widely used routine screening methods for ovarian cancer. However, new gene mutations have recently been identified that may help medical professionals identify women with ovarian cancer at earlier stages. However, these tests are not routinely recommended (and usually not covered by insurance) unless women have inherited (for example: BRCA) risk.
Wow. This reads like a major bummer. Tough disease. Minimal symptoms. Hard to prevent/screen. It’s all true. But, ovarian cancer death rates have slowly decreased over the past 10 years and new treatments including targeted and immunotherapies are being studied in ovarian cancer to improve treatment options and survival. I have been personally affected by ovarian cancer and want to share my story.
K. was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. I remember when she called me and told me. I was sitting on my living room floor. My parents were visiting. When I heard the words, “I have ovarian cancer,” my heart sank. I was crying instantly. I’d been an oncology social worker for nearly 7 years at that point, but luckily, cancer had never touched me personally. That all changed with that phone call from K. Perhaps I knew too much or had seen too much in my professional experiences to be able to turn off the ability to jump to conclusions about my friend K.
K. lived next door to me when I was growing up. She was about 15 years older than me. I liked her immediately when I met her. I was 13, a surly teenager desperate for a “cool” role model and friend. K. was that person for me. She always invited me into her home with open arms. She trusted me implicitly with her children as her go to babysitter. She was my big sister, my confidant, my pal. She was also the picture of health. She ran marathons. She found peace and solace while running. She was training for a marathon when she was diagnosed.
I’d moved away some 10 years before K. was diagnosed. But we always kept in touch. She would tell me what what happening with her kids as they grew up. She was a wonderful mother. She coached me through some rough times with my own family. She always had my back. She loved me and everyone fully and unconditionally. And now, she had cancer. And there wasn’t much I could do.
She did well after surgery and first cycles of chemotherapy and even had a remission from her cancer. She called and told me and was so excited. She had won this round! But, like ovarian cancer can do, it came back and with a vengeance. She called me one Friday in June. She was delirious from pain medications, at times hard to understand. I could make out one thing though. “K. do you want me to come.” She replied, “Yes.” I bought my plane tickets that day and planned to return home to Ohio the following Saturday. But, K. died before I got there.
That phone call was our goodbye. That plane ticket was used to return home for her funeral.
Afterwards, several of us gathered with her family at their home. I truly had come home. Even though different people lived in the house next door that I had grown up in, K. and her family were also home to me. We sat around sharing stories and laughing. I marveled at her beautiful children, now young adults. She had accomplished so much in such a short time. I miss her everyday. I am honored and privileged to continue to watch her children, her daughter now a mom of two, her son a successful fashion designer, her oldest a proud veteran who fought for our country in Afghanistan.
Ovarian cancer took K. from us, but she is very much still present in all of our lives. She is with me everyday as I work to improve the experiences of people coping with cancer. She motivates me to change things. Her legacy knows few bounds.
I wanted to use this blog to memorialize my friend but also to encourage all of our readers to think about ovarian cancer and how it may impact them. It could be your mother, sister, wife, aunt, cousin, or friend. We should start advocating for further research funding to find reliable screening and prevention methods as well as viable treatment options that help us to cure ovarian cancer, not just control it. We also need to support women and their families who are already coping with ovarian cancer. There are many ways to do this, from driving someone to chemo, to preparing meals, to taking a walk, to providing childcare. The possibilities for helping are endless.
K., I know you were watching me as I wrote this blog. I love you. I miss you. Thank you for you.