Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
With the flowering of autumn Jewish holidays consuming our attention, it’s unlikely that many of us have tuned into September as National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. I wasn’t aware of it either until I listened to NPR yesterday for the first time in several days. Ovarian cancer—often called the “silent killer”—seems to garner less attention than breast cancer whose awareness month is assigned to October, awash with pink ribbons, walks, fundraisers, and other benefits. Indeed, breast cancer seems to dominate the public expression of concern for women’s health. Ovarian cancer, however, is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States, and women with one or more Ashkenazi Jewish grandparent have more than double the odds of being affected. Studies suggest that this may be due to the higher prevalence of the BRCA or breast cancer genes among Jewish women.
Unlike a mammogram or a colonoscopy, there’s no effective screening test to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage when the chance of cure is greatest. Hence, early signs of ovarian cancer may get dismissed by doctors as typical stomach pain from something as benign as indigestion. More than two-thirds of all ovarian cancers are found at an advanced stage when it’s often too late to be treated.
Two of the last century’s most well-known comedians— Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn, both of whom were Jewish—died of ovarian cancer and hoped that their celebrity status would bring awareness to the disease to help others. Gilda’s Club, the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry, and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance are among the efforts in which their legacies live on.
That we still do not have standard, reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer suggests that we are still very much in need of initiatives to put permanently women’s health needs on the medical radar. For now, however, we at least have the month of September to encourage each other to take more assertive roles with healthcare professionals and pay more attention to our own bodies.