Brittany Burns, the fiancée of Buffalo Bills linebacker Tony Steward, died Tuesday of ovarian cancer. She was 26, and died less than two months after she began fighting the disease. Ovarian cancer has vague but important symptoms to look for.
“I was diagnosed with Stage 3B ovarian cancer,” said Kathleen Maxian. The WNY Ovarian Cancer Project founder is one of the few patients with advanced ovarian cancer that is able to share her story years after a diagnosis.
“I was devastated. I didn’t know anything about ovarian cancer. I knew it was deadly, and when I asked about my prognosis, I was told by my doctor that I had a 20 percent chance of living for 5 years.”
Of the 22,000 women diagnosed every year, 15,000 will die; more than 68 percent. That’s partially because people ignore or rationalize the symptoms. They include bloating, abdominal pain, and frequent urination.
“There’s no screening test for Ovarian Cancer. There’s no definitive test, so when you go to your gynecologist, he or she can’t just give you a blood test and say yes or no, you have ovarian cancer,” Maxian said.
“It’s much more difficult to access the ovaries than it is to access the cervix or breast, so we really need to figure out what type of laboratory tests we can use, but the science really isn’t there yet,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.
There are a few tests that can lead doctors to suspect ovarian cancer but the only way to know for sure is having surgery. Experts recommend a gynecological oncologist perform that surgery because they’re better trained to remove the cancer if it has spread.
Progress is being made in treatment, including two new chemotherapy drugs approved by the FDA last year. Intraperitoneal chemotherapy, or injecting chemo drugs right into the abdomen, is now becoming the standard of care and producing promising results.
“I only made it through four before it became too toxic for me, but that still has made a significant impact in my personal survival,” said Maxian.
Doctors are also looking at immunotherapy, like vaccines, to help the immune system fight alongside the chemotherapy.
“We have strategies, approaches to train the immune system and teach them to recognize the ovarian cancer cells and destroy them,” said Dr. Kunle Odunsi, Roswell Gynecologic Oncology Chair. “These studies are going on a Roswell Park. We are very excited about them. They have the potential to help and provide long-lasting remission.”
For many patients, especially those whose cancer returns, doctors say enrolling in a clinical trial might be the best option.
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