BY CADY KUZMICH
CLIFTON PARK — When someone close at heart is impacted by a serious illness, it can be difficult to think of much else and easy to get lost in all the damning statistics and clinical-speak.
Many local readers have no doubt been impacted by cancer. For most of my 22 years, I have been lucky enough to largely sidestep the disease.
All that changed last spring when my fiance’s mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was a couple months shy of her 60th birthday when she heard the news.
Until then, none of my loved ones had been touched so directly by the disease. Nearly a year has passed, and her condition has worsened, though she remains one of the most cheerful people I know.
The topic is on my mind, and there’s a good chance it could be on your mind, too.
Nicknamed “the silent killer,” the disease often creeps up on its victim.
In hopes of raising some consciousness regarding whatever warning signs there may be or whatever demographic is most at risk, I decided to sit down with a local doctor, Dr. William Anyaegbunam from Complete Women’s Care of Clifton Park, to learn more about the disease.
Anyaegbunam discussed why it’s so difficult to detect in early stages, described warning signs to be aware of, and listed local resources available for those afflicted by the insidious disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of ovarian cancer cases occur in women over the age of 40. Anyaegbunam, an obstetrician and gynecologist, noted the median age of ovarian cancer patients is 60.
While it is a relatively rare cancer, accounting for just 3 percent of cancer cases in women, it is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system.
Of the 20,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, only 5,500 will live to the end of that year, according to the CDC.
Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States.
Some symptoms of ovarian cancer include vaginal bleeding, bloating, back pain, frequent urge to urinate, painful urination and feeling full quickly.
Groups particularly at risk for ovarian cancer, according to the CDC, include older women, those with close relatives who have had ovarian cancer, those who have had breast, uterine or colorectal cancer and women of an Eastern European Jewish background.
Women who have never given birth or who have endometriosis are also at risk.
Some East Coast cancer institutes noted for their ovarian cancer treatment programs include Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Sloan Kettering in New York City.
Anyaegbunam answered some questions about ovarian cancer:
Q: Could you talk about why it’s so difficult to detect ovarian cancer in its early stages?
A: Well, first of all, we don’t know what causes it. Because it’s in a space inside the abdomen, it slowly grows before symptoms develop. It’s not like skin cancer when you see a blob. It’s not like cervical cancer when we can do a pap. It’s something that insidiously creeps up on the woman. That’s why it’s kind of difficult to detect at the various stages.
Q: Any warning signs or symptoms people should be aware of?
A: Unfortunately for ovarian cancer, there are very non-specific symptoms that people develop such as bloating, maybe feeling gassy, some people may complain of backache, pressure symptoms, pelvic pain. A million other things could cause these symptoms, so it’s not necessarily ovarian cancer. So, the saying is that every woman should know her body and when something’s not right.
Q: Are there specific groups of people particularly at risk?
A: Ovarian cancer, the median age is 60. So, it tends to be a cancer of older women, but nothing stops it from happening in younger women.
Q: Anything that reduces or increases a person’s risk of developing ovarian cancer?
A: There are some things that have been thought to reduce a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer, such as women who have been on birth control, women who breastfed their babies, women who have kids and women who undergo tubal ligation. If you remove the fallopian tubes it helps reduce the risk. But we have to be aware that we don’t recommend these things. I don’t say to a woman, “Take birth control so that you don’t get ovarian cancer.” But it has been seen that women who took the birth control pill, their risk for ovarian cancer was reduced compared to the general population.
Q: Is there any evidence that ovarian cancer is hereditary?
A: Yes, women whose first-degree relative, (moms, sisters, daughters) have ovarian cancer, are considered more at risk. Some women where the breast-ovarian cancer gene is positive have also been known to be at risk.
Q: Can you test for that gene?
Q: Could you talk about the importance of advocating for a patient in a timely fashion after diagnosis? What would you recommend as the first steps for someone who has been recently diagnosed?
A: Ovarian cancer, unfortunately, is the most lethal gynecological cancer. But I must say, it is not common. If you compare it to things like lung, breast, colon cancers, it is not that common. When you do detect it, the best chance of survival is surgery, followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Q: What are some of the resources for patients and family members in this community?
A: New York state has a website where people can go for information. The Centers for Disease Control also has a website where people can log in and get more information on ovarian cancer. There are support groups that people can sign up for once they are diagnosed.
Q: What would you say are some of the best treatment centers in New York or in the country?
A: In the Capital Region, there is an excellent group — Women’s Cancer Center in Albany. That’s the group I refer all my patients to.
Q: What made you decide to go into this line of medicine?
A: I love women. No, OBGYN, from my medical school days, has always fascinated me. When I did my OBGYN rotation, and watched a baby take its first breath, that had a tremendous impact on me. Now, with OBGYN, you see the women from early adolescence sometimes all the way through. A lot of times, we’re the only doctors that the woman will go to. We tend to cater to all the women’s needs. It’s a great specialty in the sense that I see life as soon as it comes into the world. The other thing that made me go into it — I was torn between surgery and internal medicine. OBGYN was a very good compromise because we have our fair share of surgical cases and also a fair share of internal medical cases.