I think about my mom a lot in September.
I went to stay with her in September of 2000, not knowing how long she had, because she wanted to die at home instead of in a hospital, and I had told her I would help make that possible.
Also, September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. The month of teal. Because not all women’s cancers are pink.
I take ovarian cancer very personally. So should you. How can a disease that starts by destroying your female balls, to use the blunt words of Dr. Christiane Northrup in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, not be personal?
Five years before that September, after nearly a year of general achiness, fatigue, and fevers that started with deep chilling and ended with drenching sweats within the space of a couple of hours, over and over again, Mom’s doctors could find no infection to explain what was going on. An immunologist thought it might be autoimmune and treated her for rheumatoid arthritis, which helped temporarily but then the symptoms roared back. (The treatment was methotrexate, which also happens to be a chemotherapy drug.)
So he sent her to the Mayo Clinic. There, they spotted some irregularities on her ovaries and scheduled her for surgery, which revealed stage 3 epithelial ovarian cancer throughout her abdomen. They removed — debulked — all the cancer cells that they could, plus both ovaries, her uterus, her spleen, and omentum. That’s the fatty pad on the front of your abdomen. (We learned a lot during those years.) After she recovered from the surgery, she started her first round of chemo.
Seven months later, back in Minneapolis in a snow storm, Mom had her second-look surgery to see if the chemo had had its intended effect. The doctors were satisfied and optimistic and declared her in remission, but she would need to have ongoing regular CA125 blood tests to watch for indications of recurrence.
Eventually the CA125 level rose dramatically. It was back. Over the next five years, Mom went through multiple rounds of different cocktails of chemo, with periods of varying length in between when the count was low again. Eventually the cancer ate a fissure between her bowel and vagina, which meant she learned how to live with a colostomy. Finally the chemo had weakened her so much and could give her so little hope of living longer that she said no more.She chose to live the rest of her days well and then when her time came, die peacefully. That’s when I went to stay with her. She died five months later.
Ovarian cancer is not as prevalent as breast cancer, but it is deadlier because early detection is so much harder. Ovaries can’t be examined from the outside, like breasts , and there is no screening test. (A PAP test checks for cervical cancer, not ovarian.) Researchers are working on that, because catching it early increases survival rate.
In 2015, 21,290 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the US. In the same year, 14,180 women died from ovarian cancer. Once diagnosed, chances of living five years are 45.6%. (Source: Ovarian Cancer National Alliance) My mother made it past that mile-marker, and died 6 months later.
Subtle symptoms exist. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, The most common are:
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Pelvic or Abdominal pain
- Feeling the need to urinate frequently
- Upset stomach or heartburn
- Menstrual changes
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
Obviously these can all be caused by other, more minor things. That’s why this disease is so sneaky.
If you experience any of these things more than usual for two weeks, call your doctor. You will notice my mom’s symptoms of achiness and spiking fevers are not on this list. I suspect that earlier, more subtle symptoms had escaped notice, and this was her compromised immune system trying to fight back.
The lifetime risk for any woman to develop ovarian cancer is 1.4%. Mine is 5% because one of my first-degree relatives had it. Other genetic factors can increase the risk for other women. (Ovarian Cancer National Alliance) Besides genetics, risk factors include:
- Increasing age
- Menopausal hormone replacement therapy
- Menstrual and reproductive history. Starting your periods before age 12, going through menopause after age 50, giving birth to no children or having your first child after age 30, or having never taken oral contraceptives all increase your risk of ovarian cancer.
I share this information to honor my mother but mostly because as women it’s important to tune into our bodies and participate actively in our own health. There are no guarantees against cancer, but with knowledge we can give ourselves a better chance.
The two links I’ve provided, to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, both have more information and resources, if you want more.
Here’s to our health.
I still miss you every day, Mom. I love you.