Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month: Survivor, doctors want women to know the signs, symptoms

Symptoms can’t be felt early on and can be similar to other ailments. Women sometimes don’t know anything is wrong, and doctors sometimes misdiagnose it.

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Jenn Szwajkowski is an ovarian cancer survivor; following chemotherapy and surgery, she was declared cancer-free a year ago.

Jenn Szwajkowski is an ovarian cancer survivor; following chemotherapy and surgery, she was declared cancer-free a year ago.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Jenn Szwajkowski of Palos Heights toughed out the fatigue, the bloating, the frequent need to pee for nearly two months. But when her abdomen grew too sore to touch, and she saw lumps push out from it, she knew she finally needed to see the doctor.

Her diagnosis was swift and startling: She had ovarian cancer, and it was advanced.

Yet after chemotherapy, surgery and more chemo, Szwajkowski, now 52, was declared cancer-free last October.

“I would never have thought I would have anything like that in a million years,” she said.

Szwajkowski’s good news came where little is often found. Ovarian cancer is a deadly disease that can hover under the radar until it’s too late.

“People still come and say, ‘I’m so confused. I didn’t even know that was a thing,’ ” said Dr. Nita K. Lee, a University of Chicago associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

It is a serious thing, even though ovarian cancer is rare — about 1% of women in the United States will be diagnosed with it. The American Cancer Society estimates about 21,750 women will receive a new diagnosis this year. Another 13,940 women will die from it.

Jenn Szwajkowski sits atop a rock painted teal by her husband Ron)in her front yard in the south suburbs. Teal is the signature color of the ovarian cancer awareness movement.

Jenn Szwajkowski sits atop a rock painted teal by her husband Ron)in her front yard in the south suburbs. Teal is the signature color of the ovarian cancer awareness movement.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

It has a five-year survival rate of 90% if detected early. But, for nearly 80% of women with the disease, it isn’t caught until its late stages, when the five-year survival rate plummets to 20%.

Though all women are at risk for ovarian cancer, chances increase with age. About half of those diagnosed are 63 or older, according to the American Cancer Society. Obesity, taking hormone therapy after menopause and delaying childbirth all can increase risk. Those with a family history of cancers and those with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes also are at higher risk.

One reason ovarian cancer has such low survival rates is that it’s hard to detect. Pap exams usually do not find it. And there’s no early-detection test for it.

Symptoms can’t be felt early on and can be subtle, similar to other, common diseases or ailments. Women sometimes don’t know anything is wrong, and doctors sometimes misdiagnose it, which is why ovarian cancer once was known as a silent killer.

“You hate to overreact with anything,” Szwajkowski said. “But really take the symptoms seriously.”

Those include bloating, trouble eating or feeling full quickly and feeling the need to urinate often. Others can include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain during sex, constipation and menstrual changes. Some women see protrusions from their abdomen.

While those symptoms could be a sign of many conditions — menopause or irritable bowel syndrome among them — Lee said that, with ovarian cancer, the symptoms persist, lasting weeks rather than days.

“It’s not silent. It whispers,” she said.

Onces diagnosed, ovarian cancer does not need to be a cause for alarm. New treatments are increasing survival rates. Many now view ovarian cancer less as a lethal disease and more as a chronic condition.

“We’ve really come a long way, and this is a disease that is very treatable,” said Dr. Summer Dewdney, director of Rush University Medical Center’s division of gynecologic oncology.

There are many types of ovarian cancers. Genetic testing can be used to create personalized treatment plans that could include surgery and chemotherapy. Doctors also can opt for targeted therapy using PARP inhibitors to kill specific kinds of cancer cells in women with late-stage or recurring disease.

According to Dewdney and other specialists, all women with ovarian cancer should seek genetic testing, which is covered by most health insurers, to help diagnose and treat them and also to learn whether there’s a hereditary connection.

The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and other groups urge women who have worrisome symptoms to see a doctor even during the COVID-19 pandemic and possibly to seek a second opinion.

“All women of all ages need to know their bodies and need to be watching out for themselves,” said Sandra Cord, manager of the NOCC’s Illinois chapter. “They are their own best advocates.”

The coalition is commemorating Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month by lighting the Chicago skyline in teal, the signature color for the movement, around the end of September. NOCC also will host its 2020 “Together in TEAL — No Boundaries, National Broadcast Celebration” at 6 p.m. Sept. 26. And volunteers will tie teal ribbons on trees in several communities in Illinois and Indiana.

Erika Hobbs is a freelance writer.

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