Beth Hudson and her sister, Sue, loved to do things together. But they never expected that they would sit side-by-side as chemotherapy dripped into their veins, both fighting ovarian cancer.
Sue was diagnosed first, in May 2006, and Beth quickly took on the role of caregiver as Sue battled the disease. “I took her to every chemo and spent the night with her when she was sick—I did everything with her,” Beth says. When Sue finished her initial round of treatment, she picked up a brochure about genetic screening and asked her doctor about it. With a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, the doctor advised Sue to be screened.
Sue’s results showed a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which significantly increases risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer. The discovery prompted Beth to get screened, and she, too, was found to have the mutation. A year after Sue’s diagnosis, Beth opted for a prophylactic hysterectomy in order to decrease her cancer risk. “I said, I’m 52 years old, I’m done having children, I’ve seen what my sister’s gone through—I don’t want to deal with it,” she recalls.
“I went in 10 days later for my hysterectomy, and when they opened me up, the cancer was there,” Beth says. “I was stage 2B, which is very unusual because it’s usually not diagnosed until much later. My sister—at the same time—had a recurrence, so we went together, sat next to each other, and had chemo.”
Finding the cancer at an early stage may have saved Beth’s life. Sue died almost three years ago, but Beth is now cancer-free. “The drugs and my sister got me through it,” she says. “I feel I’ve beaten this disease, and I am blessed.”
Early detection is unusual because ovarian cancer often presents with very vague symptoms that are brushed aside. “More than 70 percent of ovarian cancer patients do not present until the disease is in an advanced stage. The symptoms are non-specific and many times are ignored, at first, by the patient and the physician,” says Dr. Nick Chobanian, director of gynecologic surgical oncology and gynecologic robotic surgical services at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
Bloating, unexplained weight gain or loss, decreased appetite and feeling full after eating only small amounts, increased urinary frequency and abdominal pain are among the symptoms. Since these can be due to a number of other conditions (or simple digestive discomfort), women should pay attention to whether the symptoms persist or worsen and see their primary-care physician or gynecologist if the symptoms do not resolve within a week.
“The most important thing that women can do is to continue to go for their annual pelvic exams,” says Dr. Al Elbendary, a gynecologic oncologist with Missouri Baptist Medical Center. Recommendations for pap tests have changed, and although women may not need the test every year, they should still have an annual check-up.
Ovarian cancer treatment involves surgical removal of the tumor followed by chemotherapy. Some patients may be candidates for a newer type of chemotherapy that is delivered directly into the abdominal cavity. Elbendary says he has had good results with this approach for selected patients.
“The use of oral contraceptive pills can diminish the risk of ovarian cancer by up to 50 percent. Additionally, for those patients who have a genetic predisposition for ovarian cancer (BRCA gene mutation), the removal of ovaries and tubes can diminish the risk of ovarian cancer by up to 90 percent,” Chobanian notes.
St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness offers free programs and events for patients and caregivers. Information is available at sloca.org.