Ovarian Cancer: An Elusive Disease

Approximately 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are found in the U.S. each year—about one-tenth the number of breast cancer cases. But unlike breast cancer, ovarian cancer does not lend itself to early diagnosis.

Patricia Easterday had difficulty breathing along with a bloated abdomen when she arrived at Meritus Medical Center’s emergency department. “I had no idea I had cancer, but I felt as though I was pregnant,” says Patricia. She had 30 pints of fluid drained from her abdomen and after a CT scan, was immediately referred to Dr. Neil Rosenshein, a gynecologic oncologist.

Dr. Neil Rosenshein

Dr. Rosenshein specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer involving a woman’s reproductive organs. As medical director of Meritus Gynecologic Oncology Center, Dr. Rosenshein has performed thousands of gynecologic oncology surgeries in his 40-year career.

Warning signs

At age 70, Patricia had no family history of ovarian cancer and led a healthy life. Despite the unpredictability of ovarian cancer, the majority of cases occur in women during their menopausal years.

Pelvic pain or pressure, bloating, urinary frequency, difficulty eating or feeling full, abnormal bleeding from the vagina, weight gain or loss, gas, nausea or loss of appetite are all signs of ovarian cancer. But often the cancer causes no symptoms or symptoms are so vague that the diagnosis can be missed.

At 48 years old, Wendy Zimmerman’s only symptom was rectal pain. Wendy, a registered nurse, had no family history of ovarian cancer and was pre-menopausal, but her primary care physician detected a mass after performing an abdominal exam. “It’s a cancer that whispers,” says Wendy.

Diagnosis and treatment

To diagnose ovarian cancer, doctors perform lab tests and radiologic examinations such as a CT scan and ultrasound. If fluid in the abdomen is detected, it is removed for evaluation and if cancer is found, the surgeon performs an aggressive surgical removal of the tumor.

Beating the disease depends on its stage, the tumor type and the surgery. That’s why it’s important for the procedure to be done by a gynecologic oncologist. “Your outcome is greatly enhanced by the skill of your surgeon,” says Wendy who is now eight years cancer free.

Dr. Rosenshein removed Patricia and Wendy’s ovaries and uteruses and both women underwent six months of chemotherapy after surgery.

Screening and prevention

Women with a strong family history of ovarian and breast cancer are at a higher risk for developing the disease. For the sake of her daughters and sisters, Wendy participated in genetic testing and tested negative for the gene associated with ovarian and breast cancer.

Meritus Health’s John R. Marsh Cancer Center offers a high risk assessment program for women who are thought to be at risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Genetic testing, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, can help detect mutations such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

There is no proven method to screen women for ovarian cancer who show no signs of the disease or who are at average risk. Dr. Rosenshein encourages women to be vigilant and aware of their bodies and inform their doctor if they experience bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain or feeling full quickly. And, if something just doesn’t feel right, Patricia and Wendy emphasizes that women should see a gynecologist right away.

“I knew my diagnosis was bad, but I didn’t feel that way around Dr. Rosenshein,” says Patricia. “He was so calming and told me I had the right attitude and optimism to beat this. I thought he would save my life—and he did.”