Leah Elliott, a 40-something-year-old survivor of ovarian cancer from central Arkansas, said she sought out the help of at least three doctors between late 2005 and April 2006 before she heard the dreaded words, “you have cancer.”
“I was lots of things back then, a mother, a daughter, a wife, soul-mate, best friend, but on April 27, 2006, I also became a fighter and in that moment a survivor,” Elliot shared with 300 women during the Teal Talk Luncheon on ovarian cancer held in Rogers Tuesday (Sept. 8).
Elliott said her story is familiar in that she experienced months of symptoms, abdominal pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding at times all which persisted. While Elliott said she sought answers from several doctors who took plenty of notes, none of them ever did an examination.
“I was told I had dis-functional uterine bleeding but no one could tell me why. I told I was depressed, pre-menopausal, menopausal, that I could have endometriosis and there was always the underlying suggestion that all of this was in my head,” Elliot recalled.
Six months after her symptoms began Elliott, who was experiencing intense stomach pain, had a friend of hers do an ultrasound which revealed a three-pound mass that had morphed and twisted its ways throughout her abdominal cavity.
Elliott had a simple blood test at that point to check for elevated protein level that can represent ovarian cancer. She said a normal reading would under 35 and hers was a whopping 1,680. That’s when Elliott got the diagnosis of stage 2b ovarian cancer. She had surgery and fully expected to wake up with a colostomy bag because her doctor believed that the tumor had invaded her colon.
“When I woke up I found out the tumor had come within millimeters of my colon. But the tumor had hemorrhaged and leaked fluid throughout my abdominal cavity so aggressive chemo-therapy was required,” Elliott said.
Dr. Scott Bailey, OB/GYN at Parkhill Clinic and chief of staff at Willow Creek Women’s Hospital in Johnson, said there are no early tests or screening options for this deadly cancer. He said the best way for women to make sure they have healthy ovaries is to have an annual vaginal examination by their physician.
“Doctors can feel abnormalities in the ovaries during routine vaginal examinations, there is not a substitute for the annual exam. Pap smears do not detect Ovarian Cancer and the blood protein test gives too many false positives to be used as a frontline screening device,” Bailey said.
Dr. Joseph Ivy, gynecological oncologist at Highlands Oncology in Rogers, urged the women attending the Teal Talk Luncheon to take their health into their own hands. He said too often by the time ovarian cancer is diagnosed it’s already in latter stages, most commonly stage 3 which means it has spread beyond the pelvic region.
Bailey said because the ovaries sit out in the open abdominal cavity it’s much harder to contain the cancer within those organs. He said by time the symptoms become severe the cancer has already spread to the colon and liver.
Given there are only around 200 ovarian cancer cases diagnosed in Arkansas annually, he said that is not what most doctors are looking for when symptoms are presented. Around 150 of those patients will die from disease. He said the symptoms often mimic irritable bowel syndrome and other lower GI track disorders which can mean the cancer goes undiagnosed for far too long.
“The one constant with ovarian cancer is that these symptoms persist over months. Typically they will be felt 28 to 29 days out of 30. This is a signal to seek out answers, go to as many doctors as needed until you get the answers you need. You have to take your own health concerns seriously and not ignore persistent symptoms,” Ivy said.
He urged the women to talk about the disease and never let symptoms involving the GI track or lower abdomen persist for more than two months before seeking a doctor’s help.
“Don’t take no for an answer, even if that means you seek a second or third opinion. Stage 1 detection is virtually unheard of, someone would be extremely lucky to find it that early. It’s more apt to be later stage 2 or stage 3,” Ivy said.
He said 75% of the cases are at stage 3 when detected and those most often have a recurrence rate of 75% as well.
First Security Bank President David Russell said the reason the bank sought to put together the Teal Talk Luncheon was to raise awareness and get the conversation started about the cancer that is so often missed or undiagnosed until the latter stages.
“We love that the color for this cause is teal, and among our bank family we have had several connections to this disease with loved ones, friends and associates,” Russell told The City Wire.
Elliott said one thing she decided following her diagnosis was to work hard to bring awareness about this cancer, dubbed “the silent killer.”
“Everyday I live is a precious gift. I know the odds. That is why work to help other women push ahead of this disease to better understand Ovarian Cancer, recognize it and conquer it for themselves,” she said.