What did Coretta Scott King, former Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso, singer Laura Nyro, comedienne Gilda Radner, and actress Jessica Tandy have in common? The same thing that actress Carol Channing, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and Patsy Ramsey, the mother of Jon Benet Ramsey, have in common.
It doesn't take much to figure that because of Mrs. King's recent death due to advanced ovarian cancer that all of the other women in that first group also died from that type of cancer. Those in the second group are ovarian cancer survivors.
As deadly as it is, unless one is in the health profession or knows a woman with ovarian cancer, the subject is hardly on anybody's lips. Compared to how much press is given to breast cancer - and rightly so - ovarian cancer is rarely discussed.
Mrs. King's death has brought the issue into the public's view again. I was astonished to learn how deadly ovarian cancer is, and that it gets so little attention. Anytime someone is diagnosed with any form of cancer, the fear of the ultimate is overwhelming. However, the rate of success with some cancers is higher than others. As for ovarian cancer, less than half the patients with it lived for five years after diagnoses between 1995 and 2000. Meanwhile, 87.7 percent of the breast cancer patients were still living five years after they were diagnosed.
There seems to be some debate as to how common it is, but the American Cancer Society says ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women. Some sources also say it is the fourth leading cause of death in women. What seems certain, though, is that it's so deadly partly because it is difficult to diagnose. By the time a woman with it was uncomfortable enough to seek medical attention, it has spread.
Every year, more than 20,000 women learn they have ovarian cancer. This year cancer authorities say there will be 16,000 such deaths. Although at age 42, Gilda Radner was the youngest in my list to die from the disease, the Cancer Society says it strikes mostly older women; two-thirds of them age 55 or older. Mrs. King was 78.
There doesn't seem to be a single, easy test to detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. Women who think the annual Pap test should reveal the early stages of ovarian cancer are sadly mistaken. That test helps doctors detect the early stages of cervical cancer. Of course the ovaries are also examined when doctors conduct pelvic exams. But if ovarian cancer is found in a Pap test, by then it has progressed.
So unfortunately, authorities say it's difficult to detect ovarian cancer. Women cannot do their own self exams to identify it like they do breast self exams, when they may find abnormalities early enough to save their lives and reduce the need for radical surgery or treatment.
Usually, women with ovarian cancer initially were forced to go to the doctor for such symptoms as abdominal discomfort, changes, or bleeding, or changes in bowel or bladder habits. The symptoms listed here are in no way complete; there are many others. For more information, ask your doctor, or contact the American Cancer Society, or National Cancer Institute. Numerous Web sites also provide a plethora of information.
Although there doesn't seem to be a definitive cause of ovarian cancer, some similarities have been identified. Again, while this list is not exhaustive, researchers have found that women who have given birth to more children, whose first pregnancies were early in their lives, and who took oral contraceptives are less likely to have ovarian cancern than women who never gave birth, gave birth later in life, or who have few children.
Health professionals have also linked the cancer to some other odd factors. Medical science has examined the connection between the cancer and women's exposure to talcum powder and asbestos and a high-fat diet.
It's also important to know whether there has been cancer of the reproductive organs in the family. Singer Nyro's mother, Gilda Nigro, died of ovarian cancer when she was 49.
So check your family tree. And pay attention to abdominal differences. Arm yourself with as much information as you can. It could save your life.