A Unique Kind of Fear

Finding out you have cancer, I can personally attest, is a unique kind of fear, but I believe this feeling is heightened even more for women who learn that they have ovarian cancer. It’s among the most feared and deadly cancers, one that tends to inhabit our worst nightmares of the disease. That is why patients with gynecologic cancer, especially ovarian, are frequently warned not to Google their condition or research it online. Admittedly most of the information that is available on websites is general or focusses on worst case scenarios. Oncologists are eager to remind us that broad statistics don’t take into consideration an individual patient’s age or overall health. In many cases the data presented is likely to overlook a lot of specific variables. Even so, when I go online the numbers pertaining to ovarian cancer are enough to terrify me.

Devastating Statistics

Ovarian cancer is the eighth leading cause of cancer in women, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly 300,000 women worldwide will develop it this year. On a global scale their prospects are often bleak, it’s estimated that one in six will die within three months of diagnosis and fewer than half will be alive in five years.

Each year about  2,800 Canadian women are newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer and an estimated 1,800 die from it. Mortality rates for ovarian cancer have declined only slightly in the forty years since the “War on Cancer” was declared. Most other cancers have shown a much greater reduction in mortality.

Ovarian cancer survival rates remain much lower than breast cancer and other cancers that affect women. Five-year survival rates are commonly used to compare different cancers. In Canada, the five-year net survival for ovarian cancer is approximately 44 per cent. This means that, on average, only about 44 per cent of the women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer will survive for at least 5 years.

Like a Loaded Gun

One woman with ovarian cancer compared the fear of recurrence to a person always having a loaded gun pressed against her back. You never know when they will pull the trigger, or even if they will, but every minute you are conscious of them being there. I find this metaphor quite powerful, you never know if or when your cancer will return and this uncertainty is something that you must accept as part of your everyday life. A cancer recurrence happens because some cancer cells were left behind and eventually grow and become apparent. The cancer may come back to the same place as the original tumor or to another place in the body. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance around 70 per cent of patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer will have a recurrence. However, one of the most important factors in determining an individual’s risk of recurrence is the stage of their cancer at diagnosis.

Patients diagnosed with stage I have a 10 per cent chance of recurrence.

Patients diagnosed with stage II have a 30 per cent chance of recurrence.

Patients diagnosed with stage III have a 70 to 90 per cent chance of recurrence

Patients diagnosed with stage IV have a 90 to 95 per cent chance of recurrence.

Recurrent ovarian cancer is treatable but rarely curable. Women with recurrent ovarian cancer may have to undergo another surgery. Many women with recurrent ovarian cancer receive chemotherapy for a prolonged period of time, sometimes continuously for the rest of their life.

Elly Mayday (1988-2019) continued her modelling career while undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.

Braver Than I Thought

I’ve certainly learned that when you are diagnosed with cancer there are moments when you become overwhelmed and sense that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox for me is that I’m often in situations where I feel a sense of power, combined with courage and self-assurance. It’s as if I’m standing in life’s Category 5 hurricane and remaining steadfast and unbroken. I certainly don’t aspire to become a legend like Terry Fox or to be anything resembling a saint or a cancer hero. But still, I’ve discovered inner qualities and personal strengths that I never appreciated or properly acknowledged in myself. Subjected to the ultimate test, I’ve sometimes shocked myself with my enormous capacity to overcome adversity and to confront physical pain and suffering.

Living With the Risk of Recurrence

For me personally, the greatest stress of living with cancer has involved making difficult medical decisions regarding my course of treatment. There is also the constant pressure of waiting for outcomes that I cannot completely control. When I was diagnosed with endometrial and ovarian cancer in late 2011, I was referred to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre where my case was reviewed by the Gynecologic Oncology Tumour Board. This team of doctors and specialized pathologists reviews all new referrals to ensure correct diagnosis and to recommend the best treatment plan. Almost instantly I became the patient of one of Western Canada’s most renowned pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. I’ll never forget our first encounter with Dr. Ghatage, as my mother and I sat in stunned silence, he calmly explained that I required surgery as soon as possible. This news was overwhelming, especially since I had just undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy performed by my gynecologist. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before we left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a specialized procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.

That first meeting with Dr. Ghatage now seems like a lifetime ago. In a few weeks I’m scheduled for another routine checkup at the cancer centre. It’s essential that I be monitored regularly for a possible recurrence or any signs of malignancy—ovarian cancer has a notoriously high recurrence rate. Many women with the disease face at least one recurrence within five years of their first diagnoses. Since my cancer is considered to be fairly advanced, the standard course of treatment that was recommended included a month and a half of radiation therapy. Originally over twenty rounds of external beam radiation were advised and were to follow my cycles of chemotherapy. My understanding is that following through with this proposal might have reduced my odds of recurrence to as low as five or 10 per cent.

Last fall I made the excruciatingly difficult decision to forego treatment with radiation, opting for observation instead. The risks of pelvic radiation include the possibility of rectal bleeding—in addition some patients will experience a bowel blockage or a permanent change in bowel habits after their treatments are finished. In some cases undergoing radiation can result in bowel or bladder damage serious enough to be permanent or to require surgical intervention to correct. For most cancer patients the benefits outweigh these serious risks, which are comparatively small. But due to my personal medical history it’s almost certain that radiation would have posed a substantial danger. The radiation oncologist informed me that due to my previous bowel blockage the possibility of acute complications occurring would be much higher than average. Besides, I was undeniably exhausted from three consecutive abdominal surgeries in addition to five cycles of Carboplatin, at the time I felt I could endure little more.

simulator

As I await my appointment on May 23, the encouraging news is that I’m currently in remission—at least I am to my knowledge—and my chances of a complete cure are better the longer I remain in this state. The Canadian Cancer Society defines remission as a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body. According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, 80 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will achieve remission. However, it is unknown if the cancer will come back or how long before it comes back. These unanswered questions linger in every woman‘s mind. In the meantime, I’ve made my health my primary focus—a nutritious diet, an appropriate exercise routine and getting enough sleep have never been more important. Obviously I’m careful to take my daily medication; I’ve been prescribed the drug Megace (generic name megestrol), it has been known to reduce recurrence rates in uterine, ovarian and breast cancer patients. Finally, hope and my steadfast determination to live each moment of my life fully and completely remain my allies in this dreadful waiting game.

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