Ovarian cancer is a disease that strikes fear in most women since there are few symptoms. In eight out of ten women, it is not found before it spreads beyond the ovaries, making it hard to beat.
Ovarian cancer usually hits women after their reproductive years and is often called the "disease that whispers" because its symptoms are so vague.
But cancer is something you should be concerned about for your daughters or sisters because gynecological cancer can happen at any age.
When Melissa Weldy walked down the aisle with her college sweetheart Jeff at the age of 23, she thought they were starting a storybook marriage.
Then just 18 months after they were married, Melissa, a nurse, got a shock when her best buddy, Spicey, jumped up on her on the couch.
“So I started feeling around in my stomach and kind of more down into my pelvis and felt kind of a hard mass that I'd never felt before,” says Weldy.
She thought she had a fibroid tumor, but surgery with oncologist Michael Rodriguez turned up much more.
“When I woke up from surgery I was told that it was cancer and I had so much bleeding going on that I had to have a hysterectomy to control the bleeding,” she says.
No longer able to have children, Weldy also needed eight weeks of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation. Like ovarian cancer, uterine sarcoma is often hard to find.
“The problem is we haven't figured out a mousetrap to catch them. Elusive is the perfect word for that. When you look at gynecological malignancies, even with Pap smear and pelvic exam, the problem is that sometimes these things can grow inside people," says Dr. Michael Rodriguez at Michiana Hematology Oncology.
Looking back, Weldy said she had one symptom she didn't give much thought to. “The few months before I actually felt the tumor I had to urinate a lot more than I usually would. I would usually be able to go hours before having to run to the bathroom and I was going to have to go all the time.”
Dr. Rodriguez said since most women have occasional bloating and abdominal pain, early diagnosis is difficult.
“Everybody will have some of these vague abdominal, and it's not female, bleeding per say. It may not be something that you would normally attribute to the reproductive system. It's more of a generalized, and often gastrointestinal symptoms.”
So how do we find these cancers earlier? See your doctor and know your family history.
Dr. Rodriguez said, “If you have a very strong family history of cancer there genetic counseling, genetic testing, and potentially strategies, and then potentially even have some preventative surgery to remove the ovaries. Now you wouldn't do that as an average person, you would do that if you were very high risk.”
Taking birth control pills can also offer protection.
“You know five years of oral contraceptives will reduce your risk by 60 to 70 percent in most studies. And so just being on the birth control pill at some point in your life will reduce your risk dramatically,” said Dr. Rodriguez.
Know that certain things are not normal.
“If you start bleeding between periods, have excessive bleeding, prolonged bleeding, we have people who have cancer who said, ‘I thought I was just going through the change,’ Dr. Rodriguez said.
Because Weldy’s cancer was found in stage two, her prognosis is good. She said learning to live a different kind of life than she initially planned was devastating.
“I was extremely depressed, I wasn't suicidal but I was to the point where I wanted to die.
Now healthy, she is back in the kitchen with her mother-in-law. She said support from her husband, friends, family and even Spicey, helped her through.
Her advice for other young women: “There is no excuse. If it's something that feels like it's off or different just go to the doctor because it's your life that you're dealing with.”
And the life she's dealing with right now includes some big plans for the future.
“In the future, adopting and starting a family is our goal so that's what we're looking at right now.”
Both Melissa Weldy and Maureen Carr, who you can read about by clicking here, are treated by Dr. Method and Dr. Rodriguez of Michiana Hematology Oncology.
September is gynecological cancer awareness month and doctors want women to pay attention to the subtle signs their bodies may be sending, because it can mean the difference between life and death.