Ovarian Cancer Survivor Stories Point to Important Lessons

The Disease Isn't Always Fatal

Teal ribbon awareness on woman's hand for Ovarian Cancer, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Tourette's Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
noipornpan / Getty Images

An ovarian cancer diagnosis may bring to mind grim statistics instead of optimistic ovarian cancer survivor stories. Why? The numbers can be discouraging. Each year, approximately 22,000 women are newly diagnosed with the disease. An estimated 14,000 die from ovarian cancer (OC) yearly.

Every woman diagnosed with breast cancer (BC) knows at least one BC survivor she can look to with hope and questions. But ovarian cancer is diagnosed more infrequently and often at a later stage. OC patients are typically older, and the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be confused with any of a number of illnesses. In its earliest and most curable stage, there may not be any physical symptoms, pain or discomfort. For these reasons, you may not know an ovarian cancer survivor.

Perhaps the only celebrity you may have heard of with ovarian cancer was the comedian Gilda Radner, whose Gilda's Club (now named the Cancer Support Community) provides a meeting place for those with cancer to build emotional and social support. 

Their Survivor Stories

SHARE (Self-Help for Women with Breast or Ovarian Cancer), was the first national hotline offering peer-to-peer support for women with ovarian cancer. The survivors staffing the hotline share their stories of how they were diagnosed and how they fought back. Hotline callers often ask them for their own experiences, seizing each survivor story as a lifeline of hope and inspiration.

The inspiration is profound. In one hotline training group, women from 40 to 70 revealed that they'd recovered from Stage 2, 3, and even Stage 4 ovarian cancer. They learned from each other that even if OC recurs, it can be successfully treated.

Many new treatment options have been developed that long-term survivors didn't have available when they were diagnosed. Progress is being made for treatment and diagnosis. The rate of diagnosis has slowly fallen over the past two decades, according to the American Cancer Society. Making women aware that ovarian cancer exists and that they should seek out medical care if they experience any symptoms can help them get treatment earlier.

The Ugly Stepsister

Ovarian cancer has been called the ugly stepsister of "female cancers" because OC doesn't get the same kind of attention as breast cancer. The advantages of mammograms, the habit of monthly self-exams, the instant recognition of a pink ribbon's meaning, and the widespread availability of support groups have been advanced by breast cancer awareness and advocacy.

In comparison, ovarian cancer awareness and advocacy are still in their infancy. Groups like Gilda's Club, SHARE, Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance (OCRFA), the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, and others are educating women about the disease. But the meaning of the teal-colored OC ribbon is still largely unknown.

Ignoring Your Health

Women know what to do when they feel a breast lump. But the uncertainty clouding the often vague symptoms of ovarian cancer makes it hard for women to take action. You may brush things under the rug when you're not feeling well. Because women tend to the needs of others, they can become adept at ignoring our own. A woman who experiences tiredness, weight loss and loss of appetite can think these are just normal reactions to the stresses and pressures of her life.

Not Simply in Your Head

You sense when something's wrong, even if you can't put your finger on it. The SHARE ovarian cancer hotline volunteers, hear from countless women who say that they had a nagging uneasiness over subtle changes that worsened over time. But because most of them are (or have been) caregivers, they are afraid of being hypochondriacs. They are reluctant to take time away from others to focus on themselves. When you finally take the time to see a doctor but come away without answers, and are made to feel as if your 'dis-ease' may simply be in your head, how many call it quits?

Your Own Best Advocate

I am alive today because I didn't let my first inconclusive visit to a doctor be my last. I saw a nurse practitioner, an OB-GYN, a surgeon, and a family practitioner before the necessary tests were ordered and an accurate diagnosis was made. Fortunately, my OC was caught at Stage 1 and the prognosis for full recovery after a hysterectomy and chemotherapy was very good.

When it comes to ovarian cancer, you have to be your own best advocate. If you're reading this because you may have some of the symptoms, but you're afraid of an ovarian cancer diagnosis, don't let the fear stop you from seeking medical help. Like every other form of cancer, early detection is the key.