Nan Galik was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 11 years ago. Now she is cancer-free, and although she is not dying from cancer, she said she is still living with it.
“Once [a cancer patient has] been treated and told, ‘Your cancer is gone,’ I think they are always living with that possibility that it could come back,” said Lee Sharma, gynecologist at Gynecology & Wellness Center in Auburn. “It’s one of the reasons why I think these cancer survivors exhibit extreme bravery. They live every day with that knowledge that the diagnosis could come back.”
Galik said she felt survivors of ovarian cancer needed a support group, similar to support groups for survivors of breast cancer, such as Bosom Buddies at the East Alabama Medical Center. So in January 2013, Galik formed Teal Magnolias.
Ovarian caner ranks as the fifth-leading cause of death among women. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 21,290 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015, and approximately 14,180 women will die from ovarian cancer.
To raise awareness of ovarian cancer, Teal Magnolias will be placing teal ribbons along College Street on Sunday, Sept. 6.
Teal Magnolias meets the second Thursday of every third month at 6 p.m. at the East Alabama Medical Center's Health Resource Center at 2027 Pepperell Parkway in Opelika. The next meeting will be on Thursday, Sept. 10, where Ronald Alvarez, professor in the Division of Gynecology Oncology at the University of Alabama Birmingham, will speak about the progress that has been made in ovarian cancer research.
In the 80s, doctors had a poor understanding of the origin, causes and effects of ovarian cancer, according to Alvarez. Doctors didn't know there were groups at risk for ovarian cancer. Surgical efforts were "not so sophisticated," and there were limited chemotherapy options for treatment.
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Since that time, researchers and doctors understand that certain people have a mutation in their genes that put them at risk for developing ovarian, breast and certain other cancers. The cause of twenty-five percent of ovarian cancers can be traced to this gene mutation.
The most important thing, Alvarez said, is for people to know their family history. People with a strong history of ovarian cancer should speak to a physician about whether or not they should be tested for a gene mutation that could lead to ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer include abdominal pain, bloating, bladder urgency symptoms and a feeling of fullness.
Alvarez said ovarian cancer used to be called a silent disease. That's not to say it's silent to the patient, but to the doctor the patient is talking to.
"These symptoms, they're kind of nonspecific symptoms," Alvarez said. "Most of the time, people think those types of symptoms are associated with bile or bladder problems. And most of the time they are, but those kinds of symptoms, particularly if they persist and get worse, could be the earliest harbingers of a patient developing ovarian cancer."
Because many of the symptoms seem vague, Sharma said people may go about with these symptoms and without seeking medical attention. She also said 60 percent of women who had later stages of ovarian cancer had these symptoms for six months before they are diagnosed.
"The signs and symptoms of ovarian cancerare not things people typically think of as being female," Sharma said. "Abdominal pain, abdominal bloating ... and feeling full faster or being able to eat a smaller amount of food and feel full are the three main early symptoms of ovarian cancer."
Most ovarian cancer happens in patients who are post-menopausal and older, according to Alvarez, but people can still develop cancer much earlier if they have this gene mutation.
Alvarez said the best way to catch ovarian cancer early is to be aware of your family history and paying attention to the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.
"I encourage everybody to learn the symptoms and the tests that are needed to find it," Galik said. "It's important to find it in an early stage because it will save a life if it's found early enough."
Ovarian cancer has four stages of development. If caught as early at Stage I, chances of survival after five years are approximately 90 percent, according to Sharma. If caught as late as Stage III, chances of survival after five years drop to approximately 40-50 percent.
Galik was diagnosed at Stage III in 2004, and was told she had a 60 percent chance of survival after five years.
"I've beat that so far," Galik said. "It changed my outlook on life. I realize life is too short. You're not guaranteed tomorrow, let alone the next second."
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