By Liana Shaw
When my neighbour, 45, began experiencing abdominal discomfort coupled with excessive bloating, it was attributed to digestive issues. Upon her physician’s recommendation, she introduced a probiotic supplement into her diet, with little to no result. Eight months later, she passed away, leaving behind a husband and two teenage daughters. Sadly, for her, she was misdiagnosed from the beginning, her physician failing to recognise the signs of the silent killer that is stalking women – ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer is the seventh most commonly occurring cancer in women and the eighth most common cause of death from cancer in women (300 000 cases recorded in 2018 alone).
This, according to FIGO’s 2018 Cancer Report, further highlights that ovarian cancer has the lowest survival prospects of all cancers affecting women, with five-year survival rates ranging between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.
More alarming still, the number of women being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is likely to rise to 371 000 new cases a year by 2035, according to a recent study collating data from 1000 women in 39 countries.
Every year, about a quarter of a million women around the world are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, resulting in approximately 140 000 deaths, and making it the cancer for women with the lowest survival rate.
Although stats pertaining to South Africa are scant, according to the latest WHO data published in 2020, Ovary Cancer Deaths in South Africa reached 951 or 0.21% of total deaths, with women in the rural parts of the Eastern Cape being identified as having the highest risk to develop the disease, (the region recording an 8 percent increase in incidences between 1998-2017.)
Unfortunately, there is no simple way to screen for this cancer. To compound the issue, many women mistakenly believe the cervical smear test (Pap test) will detect ovarian cancer. This is not the case, and could be a reason for the increase in ovarian cancer cases we are seeing worldwide.
The subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer
Symptoms of the disease include increased abdominal size, persistent bloating, difficulty eating, abdominal or pelvic pain as well as needing to pass urine more urgently or more frequently.
Alarmingly, because these indicators are often vague and resemble gastro-intestinal issues, the disease is frequently misdiagnosed and is only detected at a late stage, resulting in premature death.
Who is at risk?
Researchers have discovered several risk factors that might increase a woman’s chance of developing epithelial* ovarian cancer, although having a risk factor does not necessarily mean that you will develop the disease. *Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common type of ovarian cancer. About 90 out of 100 tumours of the ovary (90%) are epithelial. Epithelial means the cancer started in the surface layer covering the ovary.
Among the risk factors identified are: getting older; being overweight or obese; having children later or never having a full-term pregnancy; taking hormone therapy after menopause or having a family history of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or colorectal cancer.
Noteworthy, the risk of developing ovarian cancer gets higher with age. Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40, with most ovarian cancers developing after menopause. Half of all ovarian cancers are found in women 63 years of age or older.
Treatment and costs
Treatment for ovarian cancer typically involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy (radiotherapy may also be used on occasion), but the type of treatment women receive depends on the type and stage of their ovarian cancer and their general health.
The financial implication of treatment can run into the hundreds of thousands, should you not possess medical aid cover. Even if you do, and irrespective of the health plan you subscribe to, medical health schemes are unlikely to provide full coverage across the complete spectrum of illness benefits.
Finding financial support for ovarian cancer
Most medical health schemes offer gap cover for such unfortunate eventualities, but the one that piqued my interest was a newly launched Female Cancer Cover product (introduced by Total Risk Administrators) that focuses exclusively on providing cover for female cancers, from as little as R135.00 per month. What is more, should you be diagnosed with any type of female cancer, the scheme will pay out a lump sum within 48 hours of the claim being lodged.
Ladies, I urge you to take a closer look at this new Female Cancer Cover on the market! Being diagnosed with cancer is harrowing enough without the added concerns of having to find ways to fund the appropriate treatment.
Costs aside, if you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms that last longer than three weeks, schedule an appointment with your family doctor.
More important, if you have a family history, consider speaking with your doctor about genetic counselling.
As with all cancers, early detection, and treatment of ovarian cancer, (before the cancer spreads outside the ovary), can prolong your life and possibly even exceed the five-year survival rate currently being predicted.