By Stan Marsh
©2015 The News-Gazette
September was ovarian cancer awareness month.
I can think of nothing in life more agonizing than losing a loved one, unless that loss is to an elusive disease that, but for ignorance, could have been found early enough to have been effectively treated.
Blindsided by a late diagnosis, Joyce, my wife of 50 years, lost her life last December to ovarian cancer, a disease notoriously difficult to detect.
One of the many things I’ve found hard to reconcile in our tragedy is that I know now that it is possible to find ovarian cancer in an early-enough stage to treat. It’s simply a matter of being aware of one’s health circumstances, knowing what to look for and making certain your doctor vigilantly provides the diagnostic tools necessary to address your concerns.
The real tragedy is that neither my wife nor I had this knowledge and it cost her her life. Ours is a cautionary tale for others who may benefit from what we didn’t but should have known.
Most doctors will tell you that ovarian cancer is usually discovered by accident; a physical by a savvy doctor who is tuned in to the patient’s history, or a test for something else that winds up revealing this cancer’s presence. And as everyone knows, with all cancers the key to an effective treatment is early detection.
The problem is, few of us are much aware of not only ovarian cancer and its capricious progression patterns, but life circumstances that can set off alarms that it should be looked for. It is an ignorance that can kill, and do so quickly in an unimaginably ugly way.
Joyce and I were veterans of the pink ribbon awareness campaign. She was a proud breast cancer survivor, having religiously followed the treatment and follow-up protocol prescribed by her oncologist, and was eventually declared cured.
What we didn’t know was that this was a life event that should have prompted further precautionary measures, a void that could be filled by doctors but typically isn’t.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not aware of what pink ribbon breast cancer awareness campaigns are about. Ever seen a teal ribbon event? Teal is the representative color for events designed to educate women and men about ovarian cancer. I’m sure they must be around, but to date I’ve not seen one.
Had my wife and I encountered such an event, this is what I imagine we’d have learned:
Although this disease can strike any woman, women who are at high risk are those who have had breast cancer, have a family history of cancer and, although it can and does strike at an earlier age, are generally over 50 years of age.
Ideally, such women should ask for and get tested for genetic markers BRCA 1 & 2, as a positive result raises the risk even higher. Nonetheless, it is imperative they at the least get annual pelvic exams, a transvaginal sonogram (ultrasound) and a CA-125 test, and have the results reviewed by a gynecological oncologist.
Symptoms include bloating, heartburn/upset stomach, pelvic or abdominal pain, eating problems, urinary frequency/urgency, fatigue, back pain, painful sex and constipation/menstrual changes. This was precisely my wife’s profile, but the truth is that by the time these symptoms become prevalent enough to prompt a visit to a doctor, it is often too late to do anything.
Sometime in their lifetime, about one in 60 women will suffer this disease. Most will die, not because it can’t be found early enough to be treated, but because awareness and knowledge of one’s circumstances and symptoms is so incredibly lacking.
This is a hard story to tell, but my wife was among the most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever known, and I know she would be pleased to have it told for no reason other than if it would serve to save others’ lives.
R. Stan Marsh lives in Champaign.