While women fighting breast cancer have the powerful pink ribbon on their side and men promote prostate health with fashionable facial hair, not all cancers garner the same level of public interest. Despite the horrific effects of some cancer types, few stand up to advocate for these diseases and little money is spent researching them. KOMONews.com is publishing a week-long series on some of the cancers you may not care about and the reasons you should.
Jane Van Voorst of Bellingham lost her mother to breast cancer, so she tried to protect herself by reporting her family history, getting an annual mammogram and living a healthy lifestyle. But, no one told Van Voorst she also had a high risk of developing ovarian cancer until she was diagnosed late stage.
“I was shocked,” Van Voorst said. “I had been diligent about doing everything a woman can to minimize my risk of breast cancer. No one ever mentioned ovarian cancer.”
And, Van Voorst is not alone. With high morbidity rates and far fewer cases than breast cancer, this disease has inspired few public conversations and little awareness.
Meanwhile, 14,000 women who never imagined they would get ovarian cancer will die this year.
Compared to other cancer types, there are relatively few cases of ovarian cancer in the United States. While more than 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, just 24,000 are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Still, breast cancer has a survival rate of approximately 85 percent while only about 40 percent of women with ovarian cancer live five years.
“The power of pink is phenomenal in terms of what it has done for breast cancer survival rates,” said Dr. Barbara Goff, a gynecologic oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “You don’t see the same decline in deaths with ovarian cancer.”
It’s difficult to create public awareness around ovarian cancer because the message that will save lives is complicated, Goff said. Rather than giving women a straight-forward screening recommendation, such as a mammogram, the best way to prevent ovarian cancer deaths is to watch for symptoms so the disease might be caught earlier, when survival rates are higher. Unfortunately, indicators like pelvic pain, bloating, gas, constipation or poor appetite are often attributed to other conditions.
“That’s a much harder thing to raise awareness for,” Goff said. “You can rally around mammograms or cervical cancer screenings, but ovarian cancer is different. It’s a more complex issue.”
Additionally, Goff said too few women are being warned about risk factors for ovarian cancer. In 20 percent of cases, ovarian cancer is genetic. But, some women, like Van Voorst, don’t know having a family history of breast cancer means they are also at risk of developing ovarian cancer. Educating women could prevent many ovarian cancer deaths in the next generation, Goff said.
Uterine cancer is another gynecologic cancer few physicians are warning women about. While the disease is directly related to obesity, Goff said some doctors aren’t comfortable warning patients about their risk, so they skip the conversation entirely.
“These are cancers that affect women throughout their lifespan,” Goff said. “They can impact your ability to have children and they can kill you. It’s a huge cost to society to treat these cancers. It’s just better to prevent them.”