Unmasking the Chameleon Cancer and Saving More Lives

Larua Clark Hansen and her nieceFor many years, ovarian cancer has been known as the "silent killer," seeming to display few warning signs and leading to diagnoses in late and deadly stages of the disease.


Recently, however, more physicians are recognizing early symptoms of ovarian cancer and catching the disease at an earlier stage. UW Hospital and Clinics held a Grand Rounds in March, 2010 to discuss some of these important early warning signs.


"I had stage II-C cancer," said Laura Clark-Hansen, an ovarian cancer survivor of four years. "My cancer was caught by my family practitioner because she was alert to the signs and symptoms. From the time I saw her to the time I was in surgery it was 10 days."


Clark-Hansen was diagnosed with a high grade ovarian epithelial cancer, but like many women, experienced only subtle symptoms. She felt pressure in her pelvic area along with flatulence and shortness of breath, two symptoms that can occur with a number of other diseases.


"It's not that women don't see it, it's not that doctors don't see it," said Clark-Hansen. "It's just that it looks like something else, I like to call it the chameleon cancer."


According to Dr. David Kushner, division chief and associate professor of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, the primary reason this cancer is so deadly is because it is generally caught in a late stage.


"Many of these patients have vague symptoms," noted Kushner. "There is no screening test for ovarian cancer so often, by the time it is diagnosed, there is fluid in the abdomen and pain. We are now finding that three to six months before women experience fluid build-up and pain, they feel subtle signs."


Kushner, a member of the UW Carbone Cancer Center, said they include urinary tract symptoms, pelvic and abdominal pain, a feeling of fullness, having difficulty eating and feeling bloated.


Clark-Hansen feels lucky to have had such an alert physician, but knows the importance of making other physicians and women aware of the subtle signs and symptoms.


"Two of the women I knew who died of this disease were nurses, and one was a gynecological nurse," said Clark-Hansen. "It is important to reach out and let medical professionals know that people aren't aware of the symptoms and so they don't recognize the problem."


Clark-Hansen still has a 50 percent chance of a recurrence, but knows the outcome could have been much worse.


"The survival rate of this is terrible. Eighty-five percent of women don't live to see the five-year mark," she explained.


Clark-Hansen said, "It's crucial that our medical professionals carefully listen to their patients' concerns and are aware of the importance of knowing the early warning signs. As a patient I would have found it useful to be educated about the early warning signs myself, and to be told that a pap smear doesn't screen for it. It is so important that all involved are educated in the warning signs of ovarian cancer."


Clark-Hansen is also a part of the (Survivors Teaching Students: Saving Women's Lives© group) trained by the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance. This hour-long CME seminar was developed by ovarian cancer survivor, Betty Reiser.

It reaches out to medical professionals to let them know about the importance of checking signs and symptoms, however subtle. The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance oversees the program which to date is being used by 81 universities.