Ovarian cancer — one woman’s battle against a silent killer

WASHINGTON — Theresa Downey stared down a silent killer and survived.

The Silver Spring, Maryland mother of four has ovarian cancer — one of the rarest forms of the disease, and one of the deadliest. The National Cancer Institute says 21,290 new cases will be diagnosed this year, and 14,180 women will die of the disease.

It is so dangerous because it is often caught late — months after symptoms first appear.

Downey’s case is, unfortunately, typical.

“I saw six doctors in a span of maybe two to three months, and none of them detected my cancer,” she says.

A diagnosis can be elusive because the symptoms of ovarian cancer can mimic those of other far more common illnesses, such as colitis and diverticulitis. They include bloating, abdominal pain and various gut issues. By the time Downey’s was detected, the cancer had spread and there was no time to waste.

“There is no question that the outcome can be improved significantly if we find out about the disease when it is in an earlier state,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lin, director of gynecological oncology at Sibley Hospital.

He has seen about 1,000 cases of ovarian cancer in his 25-year-career, including Theresa Downey.

“I would say at least half of the time, when we first are dealing with it and trying to remove it, it has already disseminated throughout the abdominal cavities,” he says.

Downey won’t talk much about the details of her treatment, putting the focus instead on her new mission: to raise awareness of the disease both in women and the men who are their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

“It is just not necessary for people to go through what I went through,” she says, adding that there were times she thought she was going to die.

Instead, Downey is very much alive, and feeling a sense of purpose.

“I am a different person than I was before I got cancer,” she says, adding “when you are on the death bed, your heart changes and your soul changes.”

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a time for wearing teal ribbons and learning more about the disease.

This survivor says women need to be direct with their doctors, and raise the possibility that prolonged pain and bloating could be signs of a silent killer.

“Tell them what you want. Tell them you are concerned about ovarian cancer. Have them rule it out.”

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