An increasing number of younger women are getting ovarian cancer and facing the fight of their lives. Learn more about ovarian cancer with this web resource guide, and use the comments tool below to share your stories.
Certain genes linked to ovarian cancer
An estimated 10 per cent of all ovarian cancers are caused by an abnormal gene, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. (NOCC). Two of these mutated genes - BRCA1 and BRCA2 - have been identified and linked not only to ovarian cancer but also to breast cancers. Certain ethnic groups are particularly prone to carry these altered genes. One in 50 Ashkenazi Jewish women (originally from Eastern Europe), for example, have one or the other of these genes and have between 28 and 44 per cent increased chance of developing the disease by age 70. Other research shows that French Canadian women from the Saguenay district in Quebec may also carry one or both of these genes. Although certain ethnic groups are more likely to have these genes, Canadian women of all backgrounds can inherit them from either their mother or father. Women are especially at risk if a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, sister) has been diagnosed with ovarian, breast, uterine or colon cancer.
Women can determine if they carry the genes through genetic testing at a university hospital. For information on genetic testing in your area, go to ovariancanada.org.
It's important to remember, however, that having an inherited cancer gene does not guarantee that a woman will develop ovarian cancer, but does increase her chances, so she should be extra-vigilant about watching for symptoms. Women who do carry these altered genes have options. Many doctors recommend they undergo a prophylactic oophorectomy (removal of normal ovaries) by age 35 unless they plan to have children. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in the spring of last year, women at high risk for both ovarian and breast cancer lowered their risk of breast cancer by 50 per cent after having their ovaries removed (you can't have ovarian cancer without ovaries).
The procedure does not guarantee that no cancers in the pelvic area will develop; up to two per cent of genetically prone, high risk women who have had oophorectomies still develop cancer of the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen) that looks just like ovarian cancer and is equally malignant.
Dr. William Foulkes, a geneticist at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal cautions that the research on such preventative measures is still relatively new, and includes follow-up information only up to a few years. "It's important to know if the benefits of these interventions will be sustained before offering hope that these procedures will save lives,” he says. “However, cautious optimism is justified.”
Cancer-related books and links
For more information on the causes, prevention and treatment of ovarian cancer, and to find support groups, check out these books and Web sites. As well, many cities also have support groups which can be accessed through gynecologists, hospitals (especially university hospitals) and community centres.
1. An Ovarian Cancer Companion by Diane Sims Roth (General Store Publishing House, 2003). Read the excerpt How to help a friend with cancer.
2. Power to the Patient: the treatments to insist on when you're sick by Isadore Rosenfeld, MD (Warner Books Inc., 2002)
3. From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed with Cancer by Arlene Cotter (Random House, 1999)
4. Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer by Glenna Halvorson-Boyd (Jossey-Bass Publ, 1995)
5. When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for your Children by Wendy Harpham (Harper Collins, 1997)
• Ovarian Cancer Canada: ovariancanada.org
• Canadian Cancer Society: cancer.ca
• National Ovarian Cancer Coalition: ovarian.org
• Gilda's Clubs (named after Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner who died from ovarian cancer in 1989), focus on living with cancer. At Gilda's Club, where every membership is free-of-charge, a community of support is developed in which people of all ages with all kinds of cancer learn how to live more fully. There are Gilda's Clubs opening across Canada. So far, Toronto (gildasclubtoronto.org) and Barrie (gildasclubbarrie.org) have web sites.
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