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No early test exists for ovarian cancer

Too many women arrive in Dr. Elizabeth Grosen’s office in Spokane with advanced ovarian cancer.

The disease is most effectively treated when it’s diagnosed early. But no adequate early screening test exists yet, so doctors often fail to recognize ovarian cancer until it reaches its late stages.

That’s why Grosen is writing a book to help patients help themselves. She’s a gynecologic oncologist – a doctor who specializes in cancer of women’s reproductive systems – at Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane. She and her partner, Dr. Melanie Snyder, are the only gynecological cancer specialists in the Inland Northwest.

Patients need to know what to ask their doctors to better protect themselves, Grosen says.

“I’ve been a patient and I’ve had problems. So I can’t imagine people not in the system knowing what to do,” she says.

Grosen suggests that women know their family’s health history. Doctors typically don’t associate ovarian cancer with young women, but family health history may raise it as a possibility.

Women should know that ovarian cancer mimics other health problems in its early stages, making it difficult to diagnose. It often starts with gastro-intestinal, stomach or gall bladder problems.

“Most are symptoms we’ve all had – bloating, irritable bowel,” Grosen says. “If they are symptoms that are relatively new and they’re getting worse and more frequent, that needs to be looked at.”

Grosen teaches her students and residents to include pelvic exams in evaluations of patients. Women can request them, if doctors don’t include them.

Women can reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by taking birth control pills during their reproductive years, Grosen says. Breastfeeding also helps because it reduces ovulation.

Ovarian cancer’s cure rate is nearly identical to that of breast cancer. But breast cancer has early screening tests and ovarian cancer doesn’t. Grosen recommends that women ask for a referral to a gynecological cancer specialist after they’re diagnosed.

“Why as a physician wouldn’t you want to send your patient to the most well-trained person?” she says. “If you’re not trained in it, you don’t do as good a job.”

The Women’s Cancer Network offers names of gynecologic oncologists in every area of the United States. It’s at Cancer Care Northwest in Spokane is the only gynecologic oncology practice that serves Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. It can be reached at (509) 228-1000.


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