Ovarian Cancer – Increased Awareness and Funding Needed to Tackle Low Survivor Rates

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An estimated 2,800 Canadian women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017. An estimated 1,800 will die from the disease. Canadian Cancer Society

Today is World Ovarian Cancer Day.

You are stronger than you think you are
You must believe in yourself
You must have faith in your doctors
Donna Pepin, Survivor, Ovarian Cancer Canada

The purpose of today is to raise awareness of ovarian cancer among women and those who love and support them. Ovarian cancer is known euphemistically as the “Silent Killer” because its symptoms could be overlooked and misdiagnosed as being something else, something else that could just go away with time or rest or reduced stress or a lifestyle change. The symptoms persist, progressively worsen and when a diagnosis is made, it’s late stage ovarian cancer. Less than half of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive past 5 years.

Next year will mark 30 years since the death of Gilda Radner, a talented and hilariously funny comedian who found fame on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. Married to Gene Wilder, her death from ovarian cancer was instructive to the nation, if not the world. Her symptoms were put to other causes and by the time a proper diagnosis was made and despite a complete hysterectomy the cancer had spread to her liver and lungs and she died in 1989 at the age of 42. She had been seeking treatment for infertility for several years and yet no one caught the cancer.

In the years since Gilda Radner’s death, awareness of ovarian cancer and its deadly shadow has grown, driven in large part by the families of loved ones who died. Gene Wilder was instrumental in raising awareness and funds for research after Gilda’s death; other families have done the same. Yet ovarian cancer has the lowest survival rate of all female cancers. This rate hasn’t changed in over 50 years.

This is unacceptable. If caught early enough, treatment can increase the rate of survival dramatically. It’s getting it caught that’s the challenge in the first place

Awareness is everything
A poll taken in the fall 2017 in the United Kingdom by Target Ovarian Cancer discovered that only 1% of the 1000 women surveyed recognized increased urinary frequency as a symptom of ovarian cancer. They also found that:

“Only 21 per cent of the women in the study recognized persistent bloating as a possible symptom of ovarian cancer, and just 20 per cent could name abdominal pain as an indicator. Only three per cent knew that loss of appetite or constantly feeling full was a symptom…”

Central to the awareness efforts of ovarian cancer organizations are the stories of survivors, and sadly, also the stories of those who succumbed to the disease. In these stories others can learn how to recognize symptoms, how to engage with the health system, how to talk to their doctor, how to understand the challenges they now face, and, importantly, how to take heart in hope and a belief for a cancer-free future. For health care providers, particularly physicians, these stories offer clues to understanding their role in addressing persistent symptoms and what to listen for in narratives of health and sickness. The websites of Ovarian Cancer Canada and World Ovarian Cancer Day both contain stories that are heartbreaking and yet inspiring and full of hope.

Helpful for people to know is when to push further on persistent symptoms. Any symptoms that last three weeks or longer need further attention according to Ovarian Cancer Canada, the driving force behind increased national attention to ovarian cancer care and research in Canada.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Bloating
  • Eating complications – feeling full on little food
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Urinary urgency or increased frequency
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

All people with ovaries and ovarian tubes are at risk for ovarian cancer; including women and transgendered individuals. The risk factors include:

  • Sex - disease of biology and reproductive organs
  • Age – more common in the 50-79 age range, but it can occur in younger ages
  • Family history of ovarian, breast, endometrial or colorectal cancer
  • Ethnicity – Jewish women of Eastern European heritage are at a higher risk
  • Genetic mutations – BRCA gene mutations
  • Hormone replacement
  • Endometriosis

According to the World Ovarian Cancer Day website

We can change those numbers with awareness. And increased funding for research.

Research funding for ovarian cancer in Canada is a clear illustration that you get what you pay for. The survival rate for breast cancer 87% and with research funding almost 6.5x that of funding for ovarian cancer. Not surprisingly then, the survival rates for breast cancer are almost double that of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian Cancer Canada is committed to raising $10 million for ovarian cancer research. In addition to their fundraising efforts, they have been lobbying the federal government for increases in research funding. Despite the recommendation from the Standing Committee on Finance that the government pursue investment "in ovarian cancer research to advance a personalized medicine platform for this cancer and to reduce the five-year mortality rate associated with it", the 2018 so-called "Feminist Budget" was bereft of any such investments.

What can be done?
We can raise the profile of ovarian cancer, we can educate people on its risks and symptoms, we can lobby government for increased funding for research and treatment. We can share our stories and listen to those of survivors and their families to understand how to help improve the survival rates for the next generation.

And come September, maybe take part in a Walk for Hope in your community.



What is ovarian cancer? Canadian Cancer Society

Norman, Abby. "Gene Wilder was right. Gilda Radner didn't need to die, and we need to talk about why she did". The Independent. August 31, 2016

Baugh, Elizabeth. "Speak Out to Help Make Ovarian Cancer Research a Funding Priority", The Huffington Post, May 7, 2018

Stechyson, Natalie. "This Common Symptom of Ovarian Cancer is Not Always Normal", The Huffington Post, October 25, 2017

Ashbee, Olivia and Goldberg, Joshua Mira, Trans Care Medical Issues: Trans People and Cancer,

Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. Twentieth Anniversary edition(2009) HarperCollins