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Ovarian cancer is the disease that whispers
While most are aware of breast-cancer symptoms, the Great Pretender is largely unknown
The Gazette

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Each year, 620 women in Quebec are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 350 die from it. But in a survey done for the National Ovarian Cancer Association, 96 per cent of women know nothing of its symptoms.

With such a staggering level of mortality, this ignorance has tragic consequences. Most women know about breast cancer, but it's high time we paid attention to ovarian. You can do just that next Tuesday at a free conference at 7 p.m. at the Omni Hotel (1050 Sherbrooke St. W.), in English with French translation.

Renowned specialists Dr. Gerald W. Stanimir and Dr. Martin Chasen, clinical nurse Jane Chambers Evans and the MUHC's Cedars CanSupport founder Gwen Nacos will be giving information women can't afford to do without.

It's urgent that women educate themselves about a disease that's often misread or dismissed. One problem are the symptoms. Only 25 per cent of women who are diagnosed had bleeding or discharge to alarm them, but 75 per cent had gastro-intestinal symptoms like bloating or difficulty digesting that can be linked to other ailments.

So beware: Ovarian cancer is often mistaken for something else. That's why it's called the Great Pretender or the disease that whispers. And since there is no screening test, it can go undetected until it's too late.

Stanimir - the outgoing president of the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Canada - now has one more reason to help women get better informed. He had a recent brush with cancer himself. It made him return to active practice even more determined to get the word out about ovarian cancer.

Gwen Vineberg does exactly that. She's a brilliant, outgoing survivor who was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer 22 years ago. She's a volunteer at the MUHC's CanSupport and Hope and Cope and co-founded the Ovarian Support Circle.

"What really angers me," she said, "is when women over 50 see their doctor, complain about symptoms and often get dismissed. It's common, they're told, it's menopausal, you have too much stress, etc."

"But if these symptoms persist for two or three weeks and the doctor still dismisses you," she warns, "you must go to a hospital and insist on an endo-vaginal ultrasound, a CA125 blood test and a manual recto-vaginal examination. All three must be done."

And if you can't do that, call CanSupport (514-843-1666), Hope and Cope (514-340-8255) or the National Ovarian Cancer

Association's Montreal office (514-693-4774). They'll help.

For Stanimir, the key is more early detection. He urges women to "listen to the whispers. How many times have we known someone who had a massive heart attack and who had symptoms they didn't pay attention to. The same goes here. You must listen to your body and act on it."

Another reason to educate ourselves is that good care is out there in the public-health system. Although resources might be lacking, there are promising new technologies and medications to fight this cancer. The McGill University Health Centre also has a new nutrition and rehabilitation program for ovarian and gastro-intestinal cancer patients with a psychologist, a nutritionist, a physiotherapist and a support group.

What needs to be said, Stanimir stresses, is that "women who are diagnosed move to the top of the priority list.We have good doctors and surgeons. This is not mission impossible."

But women shouldn't be alone in this fight. The government also must get its act together. Stanimir wonders why it is that we can get a mammogram after age 50 for breast cancer or a PSA test for prostate cancer after 50, but there is no program to diagnose ovarian cancer that kills too often because it isn't detected early?

But for now, it's in our hands. Knowledge is the key. It's the only way to turn this unknown disease into a foe we can learn to detect and fight. When a woman is diagnosed, she might think she won't be able to go through all that. It's a normal feeling. But knowledge, good care and support can take her through this challenge as well, whatever the outcome.

Mostly, Vineberg would like women to know this: "Even if you're diagnosed, you'll realize that in between the treatments you'll get for this cancer, you will will live, laugh, help yourself and others. I know it's the most incredible lesson I've had in life. So please, listen to the whispers."

Find out more about ovarian cancer. Do it for yourself or the women you love.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

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