The Ovarian National Alliance says almost a quarter of a million women worldwide are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year. It is a disease that effects women’s ovaries, which are part her reproductive system.
Ovarian cancer is sometimes called the silent killer because its symptoms mimic so many other conditions and in many cases the disease is not discovered until the cancer has spread.
For Clara Frenk, 2013 was unlike any other year of her life.
Clara, who is in her 40’s, lives in Washington, D.C. She works full time as a TV production specialist for the Voice of America in the nation's bustling capital.
However, she learned that the nagging health problems she was experiencing in the early part of 2013 were symptoms of a bigger problem that was proving tough to identify.
Clara couldn’t stay awake
“I realized that the first real symptom that I had was extreme exhaustion,” she said. “And when I say extreme exhaustion, I’m not saying feeling a little bit sleepy. I mean it was the kind of exhaustion that I could not keep my eyes open. I was falling asleep at my desk.”
“At home I couldn’t do anything, really. I couldn’t lead a productive life because all I wanted to do was sleep and it was causing a tremendous amount of tension in my marriage, so I consulted with a doctor and I was diagnosed with narcolepsy.”
The doctor prescribed stimulants that worked for a little while, “but then the exhaustion would come right back. “
Along with battling exhaustion, the area around Clara’s abdomen began to swell, so much so that her mother asked if she was expecting a baby. Clara grew depressed.
“I tried every kind of diuretic,” she said. “I tried every kind of natural remedy. I also started to develop intense pain in my neck and in my shoulders and in my knees to the point where I couldn’t crouch down easily so I went to see a rheumatologist thinking maybe I had arthritis or maybe even fibromyalgia.”
The doctor detected a minor case of osteoarthritis in her neck in X-rays, but couldn’t determine the cause of her swollen abdomen. So he referred Clara to a gastroenterologist.
Searching the Internet for the cause
Clara started to develop a brutal gastric reflex problem.
“I couldn’t keep anything down," she said. "My esophagus was burning raw because of all the gastric acid that was coming up continuously.”
She researched her symptoms on the Internet and she said, “… and all of them pointed to ovarian cancer,” said Clara.
Four symptoms - bloating; difficulty eating or feeling full very quickly; abdominal or pelvic pain and needing to go to the bathroom frequently or urgently - frequently occur with women who have ovarian cancer, says Amanda Davis, director of marketing and communications for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance in Washington D.C.
“Many women will experience those symptoms at one or more times during her life and that doesn’t mean that she necessarily has ovarian cancer," she said. "Several of those symptoms [especially] if they are new or unusually persistent, might be a sign that she should see her doctor and get checked out.”
A CT scan confirmed Clara’s worst fears. It showed malignant tumors on her ovaries. It also showed there were malignancies in the fluid surrounding her abdomen called ascites. This building of fluid had been the source of the swelling in Clara’s abdomen, and of the pain and gastric reflex problems.
Clara was referred to an obstetrical gynecologist who performed surgery.
“I had a radical hysterectomy, so everything was removed from the uterus to the fallopian tubes to the ovaries. The doctor also removed what is called the omentum, which is a fatty sheath that protects the abdomen, so that was kind of a thrown-in benefit which is - I had kind of an ad hoc tummy tuck done. And also, my bowel was restructured,” she added.
Prior to the surgery, Clara said she went back to the Internet to look up the survival rates of women with her type of ovarian cancer and found they were extremely dire.
Surviving a perfect post-surgical storm
“A diagnosis of ovarian cancer with malignant ascites means that your cancer has been diagnosed at a very late stage. And after the surgery I was diagnosed with stage three C. It was staged after the surgery,” said Clara.
“The survival rate is extremely poor,” she said. “I think that someone with three-C malignant ascites, the five-year survival rate is less than 30 percent — may even be less than 20. So I was terrified - absolutely terrified. That’s the only way to put it.”
Despite the grim statistics Clara did receive some good news regarding her cancer. She was told that all of the cancer had been removed and with the proper form of chemotherapy her chances of surviving for five years would dramatically improve.
Clara chose a chemotherapy that was administered to her using a patch. It was also during her months of treatment that she said she learned to enjoy the small comforts of her life.
How a puppy can help
“It was after the chemotherapy was over and my hair started to grow back that I turned to other comforts like my husband," she said. "And we bought a puppy which was very therapeutic. I started experimenting more and more with make-up which is very relaxing and creative and something that I enjoy."
“So, again you just have to take the good news in dribs and drabs and big chunks if you can. But just keep on holding on for the next bit of good news,” she added.
Clara has been in remission for one year now and her new oncologist said if she stays in remission for six years, the chances are that the cancer will not come back. At present she goes for check-ups every three months to see if the tumors are returning.
“There are a number of risk factors and we are learning about more everyday as our knowledge of this disease expands,” Amanda Davis said.
“We know that some aspects that can reduce women’s risk include things like having been pregnant, giving birth to children and breastfeeding. We also know that not having done those things can increase risks, and that some women have genetic mutations that can drastically increase their chances of getting ovarian cancer,” Davis said.
She added that her organization is constantly working to bring awareness to ovarian cancer which includes meeting with leaders on Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill to advocate for funding for research and education for ovarian cancer.
Davis also emphasized that one of the biggest challenges in raising awareness about ovarian cancer is that women do not think about it until they get it or someone they know has the disease, especially since there are presently no early detection tests.
Clara has no time to lose
In the meantime, Clara says she is spending more time enjoying the small joys of life - having facials and traveling with her husband.
“We all know that life is finite,” she said. “But for me, the finish line may have been pushed up quite a bit so there is no time to lose. Now is the time to do what you enjoy doing and to stop putting off the things that you have been putting off. And try to enjoy every day as much as you can. Things that used to bother me a lot don’t bother me as much as they used to."
Clara adds that the Internet is a good source of information on ovarian cancer and for support groups, but she warns it should not be used as the sole source of information.
“While the internet is a good resource, it’s a good place to find groups to turn to for comfort … use it as a resource, but don’t allow what you see to frighten you to the point that you throw up your hands and say I give up,” she said. “Work with your doctor and just keep on fighting.”