The cancer we’re missing

Evidently, there aren’t enough women dying from ovarian cancer for society to pay attention.

Nearly 23,000 women will die from ovarian cancer this year – a statistic that has not significantly changed since the death of beloved comedian Gilda Radner in 1989. During the past 15 years, early detection of breast cancer and cervical cancer has made great strides resulting in increased survival of women, but detection and treatment of ovarian cancer has remained static. Using current screening methods for ovarian cancer, here are some sobering statistics: More than 75 percent of women are diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, and only one out of five of these women will survive the five-year mark. Because of the lack of early diagnostic tools, very few women are diagnosed early – and most early diagnoses are the result of procedures unrelated to ovarian cancer screening. In stark contrast to late-stage ovarian cancer survival rates, if a woman is diagnosed in early-stage disease (e.g., when the cancer is confined to the ovary), more than 90 percent of these women will experience normal life span survival and very possibly a cure.

Why have screening methods for ovarian cancer remained static, considering the enhanced effectiveness of diagnosing cervical cancer and breast cancer? Call me cynical or perhaps right on target – but not enough of us are dying.

Specifically, one out of 55 women is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, as compared with one out of eight women with breast cancer or one out of nine men with prostate cancer. There are reasonably effective early detection methods for these cancers, but tools for early detection of ovarian cancer are woefully insufficient. While researchers explore the promising possibility of “proteomics” for early detection of many cancers – including microscopic ovarian cancer where accuracy reaches more than 90 percent – women at “high risk” and ovarian cancer patients remain frustrated and pessimistic about the slow evolution of tests and treatments. So does the medical community that cares for these women.

The bottom line is there are not enough of us dying from ovarian cancer to get the attention of the media, scientific research and development corporations, and medical communities that can make a difference, or our political representatives that can funnel much-needed research funds into ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment. Not enough of us stay alive long enough or have the energy to raise a loud voice about our condition, as compared with the breast cancer community that has been highly effective in getting funds for education, research and treatment. I think that if testicular cancer had the same incidence and cure rate as ovarian cancer (which it doesn’t – according to the American Cancer Society testicular cancer is highly curable and 90 percent survive all stages), I believe the media, Legislature, scientific research and development corporations, and the medical community would be putting tremendous effort into raising funds for developing an effective and early screening method. Hence, research into diagnosis and treatment would be put on the fast track.

If Radner were alive today, she’d raise her voice about the lack of progress in the disease that tortured her and those of us who loved her. Please raise your voice on behalf of ovarian cancer patients and survivors. Write your congressional representative and ask him or her to: (1) increase research funds for early detection techniques and effective treatment for ovarian cancer, (2) pass Johanna’s Law: the gynecological education and awareness act (www.johannaslaw.org) and (3) support the Ovarian Cancer Awareness Postage Stamp (www.petitiononline.com/ovca2005).

N. Alison Haskell is a Stage 4 ovarian cancer patient. Please send comments to [email protected]