Sunday, February 18, 2018
Health

Ovarian cancer survivor tells her story

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, so I would like to use this space to tell you how to detect this deadly disease early, when treatment is most likely to be successful.

I'd like to, but I can't.

Ovarian cancer has no reliable routine screening test, as there is for breast, colon or cervical cancer, or diabetes or high blood pressure. It is called the "silent killer,'' since ovarian cancer symptoms frequently go unnoticed or misinterpreted until it's too late.

So I thought it might be useful to share the story of a survivor.

Jeanine Oliver is 54 and lives in Palm Harbor. She is married and has three children, ages 15 to 25.

Six years ago, Jeanine was feeling kind of lousy. It wasn't anything too alarming, mainly digestive problems. First, it was constipation. Then she thought she might have an ulcer. Later, the smallest amount of food would leave her feeling full.

She told herself to eat more fiber. Or that it was all part of getting older. She tried to shake it off.

"I just never really felt very good,'' she said.

Then she got a phone call from one of her four sisters. After feeling as if she'd had the flu for weeks, Jeanine's sister had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

It happened to be time for Jeanine's annual checkup. The gynecologist did a transvaginal ultrasound and saw no problems. Come back in a year, he told her.

Jeanine wasn't convinced.

"I Googled everything I could about ovarian cancer. I read about Gilda Radner and how they had diagnosed her with IBS,'' she said of the Saturday Night Live actor who died of ovarian cancer — not irritable bowel syndrome — in 1989.

Jeanine went to her primary care doctor, who insisted that her real concern ought to be breast cancer, given that she has three sisters with that disease.

But Jeanine's gut quite literally told her something else — even though she had two doctors, her husband and her best friend all telling her not to worry about ovarian cancer.

"A lot of people think I'm nutty to say this,'' she told the gastroenterologist she consulted.

He did not question her sanity.

An abdominal CT scan revealed a mass concerning enough that he immediately sent her to a specialist in gynecological cancer.

The verdict: advanced ovarian cancer.

The treatment: a complete hysterectomy, followed by two types of chemotherapy, administered over six months.

Today, "I feel fully recovered. I have been lucky not to have any recurrences,'' said Jeanine, who plans to walk in the One Step Closer to the Cure benefit next weekend, as she did last year.

Jeanine is among the minority of ovarian cancer patients who have a genetic predisposition to ovarian and breast cancer. She and her sisters have tested positive for the BRCA gene.

Knowing she had a high risk of more cancer, Jeanine underwent bilateral mastectomies last summer.

She wishes that her physicians had realized earlier that she might harbor a genetic time bomb.

"If I had been more aware of the disease, then I might have had a heads up on it sooner,'' she said.

Sadly, the sister whose ovarian cancer diagnosis gave Jeanine the warning that may have saved her life passed away two years ago.

Jeanine is, understandably, a strong believer in genetic testing. But since most women with ovarian cancer don't have known genetic markers such as the BRCA gene, she's also a believer in sticking up for yourself.

"I just want women to not be afraid to go to their doctors and ask questions,'' said Jeanine, who volunteers with the advocacy group Ovacome.

"I've seen women suffer. I did suffer, but I got through it. I'd love to see more women be able to fight it.''

She wants doctors to be better trained to look for and ask about subtle signs — even gastrointestinal symptoms that a lot of us would rather not discuss. "Doctors should not be afraid to question their female patients and treat it more matter-of-factly,'' she said.

I asked Jeanine what she'd most like to tell women about protecting their health, and she gave me an answer that resonates beyond any single medical condition: Know what's normal for you so that you're alert to subtle changes that can mean big problems.

Maybe the issue isn't only that ovarian cancer can be silent. Maybe we also need to listen more closely.

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8425, or follow her on Twitter: @SuttonTimes.

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