Blue Ridge and Wingate health science students hear from ovarian cancer survivors


BRCC News | Published November 5, 2019

Three women standing together

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynecological cancer, and its symptoms are often mistaken for more-minor ailments. Students at Blue Ridge Community College’s Health Sciences Center and Wingate University Hendersonville heard firsthand on Oct. 29 about the importance of knowing the risk factors associated with the disease.

Three ovarian-cancer survivors representing the Survivors Teaching Students program of the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) told personal stories about their battle against the often fatal disease.

The event, hosted by Blue Ridge and Wingate, offered attendees a firsthand account of the symptoms and severity of ovarian cancer.

“The goal of Survivors Teaching Students is to raise awareness,” said Elizabeth Nealon, a Stage 3C survivor. “We want to ensure that people who are working in the medical field have the information about ovarian cancer risk factors so that when people come in with these symptoms they’ll be taken seriously the first time.”

Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths among American women. It’s estimated that, in 2019, 22,530 women will be diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. and approximately 13,980 will die from the disease.

The death rate is so high partially because ovarian cancer isn’t normally discovered until its later stages.

Each speaker’s symptoms seemed common, including bloating, loss of appetite, frequent or urgent urination and pelvic/abdominal pain. Many of these symptoms can signal much less harmful problems, such as gastrointestinal distress.

All three reported having been concerned and telling their doctors, only to have their doctors doubt the severity of their ailments and send them to various specialists while ignoring the possibility of cancer.

“You could have something as common as lower back pain, but it’s really cancer,” said Glenna Sears-Brinker, a Stage 2B survivor who discovered her own cancer at the age of 49.

Anyone born with ovaries is at risk of developing ovarian cancer. The following factors may increase that risk: increased age (between 55-64); personal or family history of breast, ovarian, uterine or colorectal cancers; certain genetic mutations; being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent; hormone replacement; more menstrual cycles; obesity; and endometriosis.

One common misconception is that a pap smear will test for ovarian cancer; it only checks for cervical cancer.

Katherine Gee, a Stage 4 survivor, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 56 years old in 2010. “Since there is no screening test, the symptoms are very vague,” she said.

She began experiencing symptoms at age 55, and after telling friends and family about them, a friend from Florida sent her an article about the late Gilda Radner, a “Saturday Night Live” comedian who’d died of ovarian cancer. Gee was shocked to discover that her symptoms matched almost perfectly with Radner’s.

One thing Radner had told women who had suspicions about cancer was to insist on a CA-125 blood test, which normally displays the telltale signs of the cancer. Gee went to three different doctors before being correctly diagnosed, and attributes this to all prior doctors never considering cancer as a possibility.

She’s been cancer-free since March 2019.

Nealon’s story began with breast cancer at 34 years old, which led to her having a mastectomy and undergoing chemotherapy. Several years later, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, ironically one week before she was to go to be tested for any possible future illnesses.

“I can’t look too far into the future because I don’t know if I’ll be a part of it. I appreciate so much more now,” Nealon said.

Factors that decrease a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer include removal of ovaries/fallopian tubes, childbearing, breastfeeding, taking oral contraceptives and tubal ligation/salpingectomy.

Studies have shown that women diagnosed with ovarian cancer generally have a better likelihood of prolonged survival if treated by a gynecologic oncologist.

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