Rochester race raises awareness for ovarian cancer

Oct. 29—ROCHESTER — Twenty-one years ago, Kris Greer received a shock after her yearly gynecological checkup: stage three ovarian cancer.

The doctor found a grapefruit-sized mass but first assumed that it was an ovarian cyst, and that it would go away. The gynecologist told Greer to come back in a month.

The mass grew and transformed over that month. Greer had a transvaginal ultrasound, which showed her doctor what the mass looked like.

"I was called right away. And they said, 'It has changed and it has grown and it doesn't look simple anymore,'" Greer said. "At that point, at 41 years old, I had a debulking surgery to remove as much as they could."

Greer, of course, was shocked at the whole experience. Part of the shock came from how sure the doctors were that it wasn't ovarian cancer. "They said, 'You're too young,' which is a real myth," Greer said.

More shock came from the sheer diagnosis. There are no early detection tests for ovarian cancer, so the majority of diagnoses come after the cancer has progressed to the late stages.

Greer is the board chair at MOCA, or Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. The group provides programming to help ovarian cancer patients throughout their diagnosis and treatment. Survivors also help as mentors to those currently undergoing treatment, and some survivors, including Greer, go to medical schools and health care facilities to help educate the medical field about ovarian cancer and its symptoms, which Mayo Clinic gynecologic oncologist Dr. Jamie Bakkum-Gamez calls "vague."

There are four typical symptoms associated with ovarian cancer: bloating or abdominal distension, changes in bladder or bowel function, early satiety and abdominal pain.

"Those are fairly big symptoms," Bakkum-Gamez said. "And, you know, women can have bowel changes, or bladder changes, or feel bloated for other reasons."

Women can live with symptoms for six months or more because, even if the cancer has progressed to stage three or four, symptoms can still be subtle.

Women generally have to advocate for themselves to get a diagnosis for ovarian cancer because of the symptoms. That's why raising awareness and educating women on ovarian cancer is MOCA's mission.

"If you have ovaries, you can end up with ovarian cancer," Greer said.

MOCA was in Rochester on Saturday for Unleash the SHE, a 5k or 10k walk or run that acts as one of MOCA's fundraisers.

MOCA has raised over $10 million to go to ovarian cancer research. Greer said this year alone, MOCA is giving $1.1 million to research.

"We are trying to change the face of this disease," she said. "We have funded research that has resulted in better treatments. We are working on the early detection test. We are funding a lot of research right here at Mayo Clinic, so we are very hopeful.

"Ultimately, we want a cure. But, until then, we need an early detection test," she said.

Until doctors like Bakkum-Gamez and other researchers develop a reliable early detection test, there are other options to inform women about their risk for ovarian cancer.

Bakkum-Gamez said one of the best tools women can have is knowing their family history.

"About one in five women with ovarian cancer actually have a gene that they inherited that caused it," she said. "So knowing what your family history looks like is really important for every woman."

In families where there have been blood relatives who had ovarian cancer, genetic counseling is very important to help women gain the knowledge that could provide opportunities for risk reduction, Bakkum-Gamez said.

She pointed to a celebrity example on the importance of risk reduction and knowledge of family history. Angelina Jolie revealed seven years ago that she had the BRCA1 gene mutation, which put her at an increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Jolie's mother battled breast cancer and died from ovarian cancer.

Because Jolie knew her family history and genetics, she underwent risk reduction surgeries to decrease her risk of developing cancer.

"There's power in knowing what your genetics are," Bakkum-Gamez said.