For the third time this month I have answered a phone call soliciting for breast cancer research. The pink ribbons are out in the stores, decorating everything from coffee mugs to sweatshirts and bumper stickers. I look at the calendar. It is still September, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I have yet to spot a commemorative teal token anywhere. The phone is silent when it comes to fund raising for the cause. I can’t help but wonder why there is so little focus on this important threat to women’s health.
Like most people, I had very little understanding of the disease until I found myself sitting in my primary care physician’s office staring at the report of my CT scan. I had warning signs, of course, bloating, back pain, weight gain, feeling full after eating very little, and other digestive issues, but as I often reminded myself, these can apply to most women at some point or another. My doctor had ordered a round of tests which ruled out the typical problems. Ovarian cancer wasn’t raised as a concern, and I didn’t realize that I was at risk. Only after I started listening to my body, did I become more focused on getting answers. And even though I instinctively knew that something was terribly wrong with me, the word cancer took me by surprise and brought me to my knees, changing my world forever.
And so, I can’t help but wonder how early I might have been diagnosed had I paid more careful attention or had I known what to ask. Women are often told that their symptoms are the result of stress and anxiety, or hormonal reactions, a nod to the days of Freud when females were considered to be so emotionally fragile that they made themselves sick. There were times when I second guessed what was happening to me, rationalized feeling terrible, so, quite frankly, I was not prepared for the worst. I think about my prognosis that packed a wallop, challenging me at the very core of my being. I wallowed in self-pity for a day or so before I resolved to fight. But I have also determined that I am not alone. There is a collective consciousness among the thousands, maybe even millions, of female warriors, who are also living with this kind of cancer. This is not my disease, but ours. And it is time that we stand up to be counted.
There isn’t much funding spent on new treatment options for ovarian cancer, with few clinical trials on the horizon. In fact, little research has been done in recent decades. There is still no definitive screening tool, so it is often diagnosed at a late stage. Why? At the risk of sounding like a radical feminist, there is a strong implication of gender bias in the medical community, including the pharmaceutical industry. You see, ovarian cancer, along with the other gynecological cancers, affect women exclusively. Although uncommon, even breast cancer can be a man’s disease. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate such inequality in other areas of society, so why do we look the other way with this? Aren’t women’s lives important? And shouldn’t our health be a priority?
I think of celebrities with a high profile and a ready platform. They embrace a variety of issues, political concerns, social injustices, bringing instant attention to anything to which their names are attached. Wouldn’t it be amazing if one of them decided to adopt this cause? I think of the funds that could be raised, the research that could be sponsored, the lives that could be saved.
But until that happens, one voice, YOUR voice, can make a difference. Share what you have learned with others. Ask questions. Spread the word that every female, regardless of age, is at risk. In the United States alone, over 20,000 women will be diagnosed this year. That number expands to 300,000 worldwide. (American Cancer Society.org) Ovarian cancer has been called the silent killer. Listen carefully. It whispers. Perhaps now it is time for us to shout.