Ovarian cancer is called the “silent killer,” and for good reason: There are often very few recognizable symptoms until the cancer has become extremely advanced. The symptoms that women do get are vague, and they can easily be confused for something like PMS or pregnancy — bloating, frequent urination, fatigue. Every year, approximately 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Of them, 14,000 will die. It is the most deadly of all female reproductive cancers, and is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and so it seems only fitting to address how I plan to make sure that I never get diagnosed.
In the days leading up to the delivery of my fifth child, a friend reached out to me. She knew I didn’t want any more children and was curious if I had heard of a new recommendation from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): For women undergoing abdominal surgeries to have a prophylactic bilateral salpingectomy to prevent ovarian cancer — or, in simpler terms, total removal of both fallopian tubes. New research suggests that ovarian cancer actually originates in the fallopian tubes, and not the ovaries, so removing the tubes can prevent ovarian cancer from ever happening.
And, as I was scheduled to have a c-section, she thought it was something I might be interested in.
She was right; I was certainly intrigued. But my c-section was literally right around the corner, in just a matter of days. I had no idea if I would even be eligible for the procedure, or if it was too late to plan for it. But it was worth asking. So when I went in to the hospital to deliver our daughter, Felicity, I made sure to bring it up as soon as the doctors came in to see me before taking me into the operating room. They were, to my surprise, completely open to the idea, and even a little impressed that I had heard of the ACOG recommendation. But it may not work out, they warned. Pregnancy drastically increases blood flow, which increases the size of the blood vessels in and around the uterus. They would remove the tubes, but only if it was safe to do so, and didn’t pose a risk of hemorrhage. They also warned that this would mean complete and total sterilization, so if there was any chance that we might want more kids, we shouldn’t do it.
My husband and I had to make a very quick decision — were we really, truly ready to put a permanent end to having children? We talked about it, and we both agreed. We didn’t want more children, but this was still a permanent decision. That was a sobering thought, but it could also mean that I had a greater chance of being around to see my children grow up. And unfortunately, it appears that I have good reason to be concerned about ovarian cancer.
My mom is adopted, so I honestly was not sure if I was at an increased risk for getting ovarian cancer. I was continually questioning if this was really a good idea, or if I was overreacting. So right then and there, I asked my mom about it. She had met her biological mother once, when I was very young, and luckily for me, she had the foresight to ask her about the family medical history. And wouldn’t you know it? Breast cancer and ovarian cancer ran in the family. My biological grandmother was very young when she had my mother — just 14 — so when she told my mother about this history, the women in question would have all been younger than 50. That immediately told me that this was something I needed to do.
Unfortunately, the doctors were unable to remove the tubes during my c-section. There was too much blood flow, and it would have been too dangerous. However, they agreed that it was smart to have them removed, so they said they would do a second surgery instead. This would be a laparoscopic, outpatient procedure, hopefully with a quick recovery time. And having the tubes completely removed will, with any luck, effectively eliminate my chances of ever getting ovarian cancer.
We have already scheduled our pre-op appointment for later this month, and the surgery should take place towards the end of October. I also plan to be tested for the BRCA 1 or 2 gene, or the breast cancer gene — if I have it, I’ll also be talking to my doctors about a prophylactic mastectomy. These are drastic steps, to be sure. But if it means potentially saving my life, it will all be worth it.