Op-Ed

UK's ovarian cancer screening pays off

Suzi Shoemaker, an ovarian cancer survivor and the owner of Lantern Hill Farm in Midway spoke at the news conference. UK's Markey Cancer Center patients having certain types of cancer have higher survival rates than patients treated elsewhere, according to data released during a news conference in the Wethington Building at the University of Kentucky on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 in Lexington.   Photo by David Perry | Staff
Suzi Shoemaker, an ovarian cancer survivor and the owner of Lantern Hill Farm in Midway spoke at the news conference. UK's Markey Cancer Center patients having certain types of cancer have higher survival rates than patients treated elsewhere, according to data released during a news conference in the Wethington Building at the University of Kentucky on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 in Lexington. Photo by David Perry | Staff

September was always an important month on my calendar because most of our farm revenue comes from selling yearling Thoroughbreds during the two-week Keeneland September sales. But this September also marks my fifth year as an ovarian cancer survivor, thanks to my participation in the University of Kentucky's Ovarian Screening Research Program.

In 2006, I was just past my 50th birthday when I read a Herald-Leader article about an update from the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center's director of gynecologic oncology, Dr. John van Nagell. The article mentioned that Kentucky first lady Glenna Fletcher and several legislators had all undergone a simple free ultrasound exam to detect ovarian abnormalities.

The article said that UK's Ovarian Screening Research Program was the largest institutional cancer screening trial in the nation. At that time, more than 25,000 women had undergone the painless procedure, which was responsible for early diagnosis of more than 400 ovarian tumors.

I had lived in Lexington for 30 years and had never heard of this program. All I knew about ovarian cancer was that it killed comedian Gilda Radner at the height of her career, and it was usually diagnosed too late to help its victims.

So I called and made an appointment.

Many of the nearly 22,000 Americans diagnosed with ovarian cancer annually have symptoms, but they are often similar to those of less serious conditions. The most common signs — pelvic pain, increased abdominal size, "trouble eating" and feeling full quickly — are easily thought of as routine signs of aging by the average woman.

And most doctors agree with their assessment, dismissing the complaints or offering referrals to specialists such as gastroenterologists. Small wonder that by the time ovarian cancer is diagnosed, 85 percent of cases are in advanced stages, and more than half of the women diagnosed die within five years.

I thought I was the healthiest person alive when I went to the Markey Cancer Center for my screening. I was dedicated to healthful living and disease prevention, with normal mammograms, Pap smears and pelvic exams performed in the past year. The only symptom I knew about was an enlargement in my left abdomen, which I thought might be a benign uterine fibroid, like my mom had.

But this enlargement was caused by an ovarian tumor of a rare and aggressive cell type, first shown that day during the transvaginal ultrasound exam and completely removed during surgery by van Nagell the next day.

Thanks to early intervention, the skills of a trained gynecologic oncologist and a surgical team able to identify the cancer cell type and extent of its spread during this first surgery, my cancer was controlled at the earliest possible point. Following six rounds of chemotherapy, I have a 93 percent chance of being cured of this deadly disease.

About 200,000 ovarian cancer screenings have been performed on about 37,000 volunteers at UK since 1987, according to Dr. Edward J. Pavlik, director of the Ovarian Screening Research Program at Markey Cancer Center. Of that number, 500 women have undergone surgery, with about 25 percent of those patients diagnosed with ovarian malignancy.

Recent research questions the value of such screenings, especially those for lung, prostate, breast and ovarian cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society Web site advises ovarian cancer screening is "not recommended for women without known strong risk factors."

And according to a May 18 article in USA Today, an 18-year study of 78,216 American women found that the large number of false positives and risk of unneeded surgeries from ovarian cancer screening trials do not increase survival time, and may actually be harmful because of the attendant anxiety and surgical risks.

True enough, no hours of my life were as terrifying as those after the initial ultrasound found something amiss. But even if my tumor had been benign, I would consider the potential cure of this lethal cancer worth that distress and the potential surgical complications.

Furthermore, my case contributes to UK's data and achieving its goal to develop a definitive early diagnostic test.

I am grateful every day for the Ovarian Screening Research Program. As Kentuckians, we can all be proud of the national stature of this team and the excellent care available at the Department of Gynecologic Oncology at Markey Cancer Center.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. I urge you to learn more with a visit to http://ovarianscreening.info, or call 1-800-766-8279 to see if you or a loved one qualifies for free screening.

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