Cancer loss drives Bellingham widower to volunteerism

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 13, 2013 

Let's talk about cancer. What, you'd rather not? I understand; but of course I disapprove. Heck, I spent most of my life trying not to even think about cancer, much less talk about it. But it's time to face the real world. Buck up!

As I write this, Ovarian Cancer Awareness month is half over, and I'll bet you didn't know it. Don't feel bad; almost no one else did, either. Sadly, almost no one has heard of Ovarian Cancer Month (September), even though it was proclaimed by the president himself. Until recently I barely realized that there was such a thing as ovarian cancer, let alone that it had its own month. Things changed dramatically, however, about 21/2 years ago when my wife died of ovarian cancer. Being over 75 at the time, and finding myself with no useful work to do, I decided to volunteer with some cancer research projects in Seattle, specifically the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Marsha Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer Research.

I am a geologist by training, and during all my years of schooling I managed to avoid learning anything about biology. (I figured it was for girls.) In Seattle I expected to lick envelopes, file papers and other objects, and in general perform tasks that required minimal skill or intelligence. Instead, I found myself reading material that I only vaguely understood, writing little laymen's ditties about cancer- and studying desperately to get up to speed. My "learning cure" was so steep that climbing it required (and still requires) all the mental mountaineering skills I ever possessed, and more. However, I have made a little progress, a very little, and I am going to share some of what I have learned with you.

Do not turn the page!

Ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon, thank goodness, but given the current state of our knowledge it is one of the most deadly. About 21,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, and perhaps 14,000 will die. If detected early enough, ovarian cancer is curable. The problem has been, and continues to be, that detecting it early is not simple. There are symptoms, but they are easily confused with other conditions that are far less lethal. Research is underway to find markers in the blood that will warn of an early approach of ovarian cancer, but so far they have been less than totally successful. Some new approaches to this problem are being investigated at Fred Hutch and elsewhere; there is reason to hope, but success is far from certain. Progress also is being made in treatment methods, but here again the pace of improvement is painfully slow. Possibly the brightest star on the horizon has to do with prevention.

It is difficult to completely prevent any type of cancer, because most arise from genetic changes -- mutations - that occur spontaneously. Some of us are born with mutated genes that increase the probability of contracting cancer, but no cancer is truly inherited. The likelihood of having inherited important damaged genes can be assessed by examining your "pedigree;" did your near relatives suffer from the specific disease in unusually high numbers? Ethnicity also makes a difference; for instance, women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent have an elevated risk of contracting ovarian cancer. Presumably an unusually high fraction of these women are born with one or more mutations that, with the help of other, spontaneous, genetic mistakes, result in the disease. I could give other examples but I have only 177 words left to play with in this essay so I must get on with it.

If you are high-risk and have all the children you want, you might consider lowering your risk of ovarian cancer by getting rid of both your ovaries and your fallopian tubes. Lately it has begun to appear that having the fallopian tubes alone removed will do the job nearly as well, and spare you possible complications. See your doctor. See a genetics counselor.

Some web resources:

For symptoms, marsharivkin.org/ovarian-cancer/symptoms;

Risk factors: cancer.org/cancer/ovariancancer/detailedguide/ovarian-cancer-risk-factors;

For what Fred Hutch is doing about it: fhcrc.org/en/diseases/ovarian-cancer.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The American Cancer Society is celebrating 100 years of fighting cancer this year. Read more about its progress online at bit.ly/19tqOQ4. The Bellingham Herald invites local cancer survivors and volunteers to share their stories this month to highlight the progress that has been made in fighting these diseases. Send your submission of 700 words or less to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

Myrl Beck of Bellingham is a retired WWU geology professor. He's blogging at ljb-quiltcutie.blogspot.com.

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