When Kelly Williams was a junior in college, a sudden, unexpected diagnosis of ovarian cancer changed her life. Now, 13 years later, she’s involved with a nationwide fundraiser— Ovarian Cycle— to bring awareness and much-needed research support for the devastating disease.
While ovarian cancer is relatively rare— a woman has a 1.5 to 1.7 percent lifetime risk— it’s considered the “silent killer” because its symptoms mimic other conditions and it is often diagnosed in late stages. Women with stage 3 or 4 ovarian cancer have only a 30 to 40 percent survival rate, compared to an 80 to 90 percent survival rate for stage 1 patients, Dr. Molly Brewer, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Connecticut Health Center, told FoxNews.com.
“Many women go to three or four doctors before diagnosis,” Brewer said, adding that it’s not something physicians see regularly.
This drawn-out diagnosis is due to the fact that the signs of ovarian cancer can feel like bad premenstrual symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome, gallbladder and gastrointestinal pain, or constipation and diarrhea. Some women experience their abdomen getting larger, which, for older women, tends to be diagnosed simply as weight gain, Brewer said.
When she finally went to see a doctor, Williams, now 34, had an eight-pound tumor in her abdomen— which looked especially odd because she’s slim. Even though she felt the hard mass and was constantly bloated, she’d ignored her symptoms. Williams immediately underwent surgery to remove the mass, which was biopsied and diagnosed as cancerous.
“The mass was actually my ovary,” Williams told FoxNews.com, adding that her doctors think it may have been growing for upwards of a year.
After the tumor, her right ovary and her fallopian tube were removed, Williams was cancer-free, but underwent four rounds of chemotherapy to ensure no rogue cancer cells remained.
“Surgery was a walk in the park compared to chemo,” she said of the three-month treatment between her junior and senior years at the University of Virginia (UVA).
Preparing for the future
Williams’ doctors put her on an oral contraceptive immediately after her diagnosis. Women who take birth control over five years reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by about 50 percent, and every year after reduces their risk an additional amount, Brewer said.
“Nobody really knows why but has something to do with ovulation,” she said.
For Williams, the goal was not only to prevent recurrence, but also to increase her chances of pregnancy with her remaining ovary.
“Being on the pill would prevent me from ovulating and save up the eggs I do have remaining,” she said.
Because the diagnosis is unusual for young women, Williams sees a physician every six months to make sure she remains cancer free in her healthy ovary. Now that she’s almost 13 years out, her chances are low, she said, though recurrence is dependent on the type of cancer and stage.
“We’re talking about ‘ovarian cancer’ but there are different permutations of it, some actually have a very good prognosis, and some have a pretty bad prognosis,” Brewer said.
Becoming an advocate
Williams married her husband, Scott, whom she met in graduate school at UVA, in October 2013 and they moved to Atlanta. As a newcomer to the area, she looked for an organization that she could get involved with and found Ovarian Cycle, a six-hour indoor cycling event that benefits the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (OCRF). Last year, she participated in the ride, and this year, she’s involved in the planning of the event.
While six hours of cycling seems intense, even for active people, Williams said the environment is more relaxed and fun, and that participants can choose to ride the whole time or take turns with their teammates.
Ovarian Cycle was founded in Atlanta in 2004 by Bethany Diamond, in honor of her friend Debbie Green Flamm, who succumbed to the disease at age 43.
“Debbie died in December 2003, and at the point we started this, there was nothing we could really do for Debbie, but she has a daughter, I have a daughter, and I do it for this reason. [An accurate] test needs to be developed,” Diamond, 55, told FoxNews.com. “We need to have it for all women and every person that gets involved with this actually makes a difference and changes our future.”
The Atlanta ride is March 7 and rides are planned for 17 other cities. Ovarian Cycle has raised more than $2.1 million to fund scientific research on ovarian cancer.
Sharing their message
The biggest lesson to be learned from their collective experiences with ovarian cancer, the women agree, is that women need to pay attention to their bodies, stay on top of their own health, and be their own health advocates.
If your own physician isn’t able to figure out what is wrong, get another opinion or seek a specialist, Brewer said. Knowing one’s family history and risk factors is important, as well. Women with a family history of early onset breast or ovarian cancer, those who have not had children, and those who have children after age 35 all have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
“If you really think something is wrong and someone tells you ‘You’re fine,’ I would strongly recommend politely pushing,” Williams said. “Try and get the correct answers because [ovarian cancer] is very hard to uncover.”