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Early detection helps treat ovarian cancer

September 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Experts say 90 percent of women with ovarian cancer did have signs or symptoms months prior to getting a diagnosis, but they often ignored them.

Ovarian cancer is often called the "silent killer" because in some women, there are no symptoms. But doctors say that's not true in most cases.

The symptoms are noticeable if you pay attention and most women can be completely cured if they take action.

Seventeen years ago, Carol Levy felt an unusual pain in her abdomen. She thought it would pass, but something told her to get it checked.

"This was not anything heroic that I did. All I did was I said 'I don't feel well, I'm not going to be in denial,'" said Levy.

She saved her life. Levy had stage 2 ovarian cancer.

"Over 90 percent of women with ovarian cancer have symptoms prior to their diagnosis, many months prior to their diagnosis," said Dr. Beth Karlan, director of the Women's Cancer Research Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Karlan says persistent bloating is early sign number one. Number two: pelvic and abdominal pain.

"Typically it's not an acute pain. Typically it's an ache," said Karlan. "But it's something that is different for you."

Number three: difficulty eating or feeling unusually full.

Number four: a frequent need to urinate.

Karlan says the most important risk factor is family history, but know both sides.

"The inherited risk of ovarian cancer, when we talk about family history, is equally as likely to come through your father's side of your family as your mother's side of the family," said Karlan.

Aging is another risk factor, with the theory being that the longer a woman ovulates the more likely she'll contract ovarian cancer. Pregnancy, breastfeeding and birth-control pills can be protective.

"Being on birth-control pills actually can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer significantly," said Karlan.

Carol Levy survived to see her daughter get married, and she's preparing for her other daughter to do the same. All this because she paid attention to her body.

"This is about staying alive and taking care of all that you love," said Levy. "That's why you have to act and not be in denial."

Once you've had ovarian cancer, there's always a chance it can return.

Levy is battling her second round with the disease, but she's doing well. She's participating in a clinical trial to test a promising new cancer drug.


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