HEALTH SPOTLIGHT: Celebrity Cases Shine Spotlight on Ovarian Cancer Awareness
By Space Coast Daily // February 8, 2022
celebrated tennis legend shared she’s been diagnosed with ovarian cancer
The news that tennis star Chris Evert has been diagnosed strikes a chord – and should be an important reminder for all women to seek medical expertise if they’re not feeling right.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – When a celebrity publicly announces a health diagnosis, it often brings the condition back into the spotlight.
Take, for example, Chris Evert.
Earlier this month, the 67-year-old celebrated tennis legend shared with the world she’s been diagnosed with Stage 1C ovarian cancer, discovered during a preventive hysterectomy.
It’s a disease that often is traced to a heredity link. This one, in particular, killed Evert’s sister. Luckily, Evert’s was caught in the early stages, giving her the best chance at recovery.
Hearing news like that is something that’s sure to send shivers up the spines of plenty of women. Many of us think, “Could it happen to me?”
Dubbed “the silent killer,” ovarian cancer’s vague symptoms make it difficult to detect early on. Such signs of trouble can be mistaken for a host of other issues, said Dr. Marshall Scott Bovelsky, a gynecologist with Health First Medical Group. On top of it, there’s a lot of misinformation making the rounds.
“We don’t (typically) pick up ovarian cancer until it’s Stage 3 or 4,” Bovelsky explained of modern medicine’s limitations with this particular form of cancer. “By the time someone has symptoms, it’s already progressed.”
Another problem is that there’s no screening test to catch ovarian cancer early on. Women who have annual Pap smears are screened for cervical cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes it.
While a pelvic exam of the ovaries might possibly detect something’s amiss (or find another female cancer), “most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible to feel,” according to the American Cancer Society.
“I get a lot of patients who come in and say, ‘I want to be screened for ovarian cancer,’ ” Bovelsky said. “We have nothing that can be used as a screening. That’s why it’s so frustrating.”
Survival Rate Similar to Breast Cancer
Ovarian cancer typically affects women in their late 50s to early 60s, but he’s seen patients younger and older than that as well. And ovarian cancer can originate not just in the ovaries but the fallopian tubes and peritoneum, the tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the organs in the abdomen. (Evert’s cancer was discovered in a fallopian tube.)
While the survival rate is similar to breast cancer, the problem is when it’s diagnosed. Its symptoms are typically mild (like feeling bloated and quickly satiated) and often mistaken for other ailments, like digestive issues. That’s what makes it hard to catch early on.
That’s why it’s crucial women become their own advocates. For example, if you find yourself bloated and feeling full way too early on a consistent basis – for six weeks straight or so – you need to tell your doctor.
“That’s not good,” Dr. Bovelsky said. “You need to come in and get checked out.”
But don’t panic, he noted. “The vast majority of women who have those symptoms don’t have ovarian cancer,” he said.
The American Cancer Society reports that about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When found early, about 94% of ovarian cancer patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.
According to Cancer.gov, about 1.2% of women will get ovarian cancer during their lifetime. And the genes that play a part in heredity breast cancer – Breast Cancer gene 1 (BRCA-1) and Breast Cancer gene 2 (BRCA-2) – can also contribute to ovarian cancer.
Of women who carry the BRCA-1 gene, 39% to 44% will develop ovarian cancer by 70 to 80 years of age; 11% to 17% of those who carry the BRCA-2 gene will develop ovarian cancer as well.
Pay Attention to Family History
Women should pay attention to family history because of this. If you have a first or second-degree relative – your mom, grandmother or great-grandmother – who has had ovarian cancer, you’re at higher risk and should undergo genetic testing to see if you carry the BRCA gene, Bovelsky said.
If such a relative had breast cancer before age 50, you should also undergo genetic testing to see if you carry the BRCA gene – not just for your health, but that of future generations.
“If they have that gene, they should have their ovaries taken out after they’re done having children,” to reduce the risk, he explained.
Other risks, outside of age and genetics, include infertility, a history of endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome and smoking cigarettes.
Here’s a silver lining, though. Women who’ve taken birth control pills for five to 10 years see a 20% to 40% reduction in ovarian cancer risk, Bovelsky said. Risks are also reduced for women who have had a previous pregnancy and/or a history of breastfeeding.
Having a surgical sterilization – commonly known as having your “tubes tied” – can further reduce the risk. A salpingo-oophorectomy (the removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries) offers the best protection against ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is diagnosed when a suspect cyst or growth is removed and biopsied. It’s important to remember that ovaries are supposed to make cysts (called functional cysts, they form from the follicles that produce estrogen and release ova). So having one isn’t a reason to panic, Bovelsky said. If your gynecologist finds an overly suspicious ovarian cyst, you’ll typically be referred to a gynecologic oncologist.
Stay On Top of Your Health
Celebrities such as Chris Evert sharing their stories can have a powerful impact on awareness – but can also spark panic in some.
Angelina Jolie, who lost her mother, aunt and grandmother to cancer, had a preventive double-mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA-1 gene in 2013, then two years later, a risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
When high-profile people share their diagnoses publicly, it can serve as a good reminder to stay on top of your health, no matter how busy you are – but don’t make any rash decisions without discussing with your provider first. (Time magazine examined the rush of genetic testing after Jolie’s revelation, coined “The Angelina Effect.”)
Just remember, a licensed medical provider should be your go-to source of information – not the internet.
“Do your Google search, but come to your doctor with questions and get the right answers,” Bovelsky said.
To make an appointment today with a gynecologist, visit HF.org/WomenandChildren/Gynecology, or call 321.725.4500.