BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Addressing a Silent Killer

Posted by egehl on January 6, 2010

This week NBC Nightly News is featuring a special series called “Eye on Women’s Health”. During each broadcast they focus on a different pressing health issue facing women. Last night’s topic was on ovarian cancer, which many consider the silent killer because it presents few, if any, symptoms. As a result most women are unable to detect the cancer until the detrimental late stages.

Ovarian cancer kills over 14,000 women each year. The risk of ovarian cancer increases with age, especially around the time of menopause. A family history of ovarian cancer is one of the most important risk factors however not always a sure connection. Infertility and not bearing children are also risk factors as is developing late menopause. Pregnancy can decrease the risk of developing ovarian cancer.  If women do experience symptoms it can include pressure or fullness in the pelvis, abdominal bleeding, or changes in bowel and bladder patterns, which are constant and progressive.

Over the last 10 years an experiment took place to find a way to detect ovarian cancer early when it’s more treatable. The researchers studied the blood of thousands of women and their families with an ovarian cancer history. The goal of the experiment was to develop a simple test that could find the cancer early enough before it spreads. This is especially important since many women do not experience any symptoms that would indicate they have cancer. Unfortunately researchers were not able to develop a test. However the doctor that ran the experiment now studies new types of ultra sounds that could be promising.

Exactly three years ago on January 12th a bill entitled “Johanna’s Law” was signed into law. I was fortunate enough to have been involved with this piece of legislation and part of the advocacy efforts that eventually saw it signed into law by President Bush.  The legislation aims to broaden and further public awareness and education about all gynecologic cancers including ovarian, cervical and uterine.

Specifically, the new law has two objectives.  First, it authorized a national gynecologic cancer early detection and awareness campaign directed at women and their providers.  This includes a national public awareness campaign carried out by the Department of Health and Human Services to increase women’s awareness and knowledge about gynecologic cancers. This campaign could include activities such as maintaining and distributing a supply of written materials that provide information to the public, and placing public service announcements intended to encourage women to discuss their risks with their physician.

Secondly, the law included demonstration grants for outreach and education to local and national nonprofits to test different education strategies, including strategies directed at providers, women and their families.

Before Johanna’s Law there was nothing that would specifically educate women about the risk factors and possible symptoms of gynecologic cancers.  Getting Johnana’s Law signed into law was a wonderful first step, however the law must be adequately funded each year as well.  In addition to securing appropriations funding, Johanna’s Law advocates are now working to expand it. 

It is promising that gynecologic cancers have gotten increased attention in recent years however there is still a long way to go in understanding ovarian cancer, and how to detect it early.  Hopefully through programs supported by Johanna’s Law women will talk with their physicians about their possible risks and family history, and be mindful of any unusual physical changes they may detect.

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