September 15, 2007


 Unmasking silent killers

Awareness is key in fight against prostate, ovarian

Posted Sept. 1, 2007

Prostate and ovarian cancers will claim the lives of an estimated 42,000 men and women in the United States this year. There are few symptoms to signal the early stages of either disease, yet early diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death.

Progress is being made in the war against both forms of cancer, thanks to ongoing research as well as education and awareness campaigns such as the designation of September as National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month and National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Screen early, often  

According to the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, in 2007 more than 218,000 cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed, which represents 33 percent of all new cancers in men in the United States. It will also take the lives of an estimated 27,050 men, one every 18 minutes.

That number actually represents a 1 percent decline in the number of prostate cancer deaths from last year, thanks to screening and new treatments. Much of the credit goes to heightened awareness of the need for regular screening in the form of a prostate-specific antigen test or digital rectal examination.

The AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust has seen this at its Wellness Center, held at the AVMA Annual Convention, where the number of men seeking a PSA test went from 161 in 2004 to 484 in 2006. The importance of regular screening is clear: When prostate cancer is diagnosed early, 97.9 percent of men survive more than 10 years, while just 17.6 percent of those with a diagnosis of advanced-stage prostate cancer will survive to the 10-year mark.

All men age 50 and older should undergo annual screenings, while men with one or more risk factors should begin annual tests at age 45 or younger.

There are no noticeable symptoms of prostate cancer in its early stages. In more advanced stages, symptoms may include difficult or frequent urination, blood in the urine, and bone pain.

Those at the highest risk for prostate cancer include men who have a family history of the disease, are obese, consume a high-fat diet, are exposed to pesticides and herbicides, or as veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used in Vietnam from 1962-1971.

Although one in six American men are at risk for prostate cancer in their lifetime, there are ways to reduce the potential, starting with a low-fat diet that is heavy on fruits and vegetables. Studies have also shown a strong connection between consumption of saturated fat and red meat and increased rates of prostate cancer diagnosis and mortality.

Know the symptoms 

Ovarian cancer has proved to be a much tougher challenge. The number of new cases each year continues to range from 20,000 to 22,000. In 2007, 15,000 women will die of ovarian cancer, making it the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women living in the United States. 

Even the amount spent on benefits reflects the lack of progress in the war on ovarian cancer. The AVMA GHLIT has seen its benefits paid for ovarian cancer treatment rise 10 percent from 2005-2006.

There has been one positive development, however. In June 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, and the American Cancer Society reached a consensus on symptoms of the disease for the first time. These symptoms include the following:

  • pelvic and abdominal pain
  • urinary frequency and urgency
  • increased abdominal size and bloating
  • difficulty eating
  • feeling full quickly

Educating women on these symptoms is critical to ensuring they are not ignored or misrepresented, which carries fatal consequences. The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance reports that when the disease is detected before it spreads beyond the ovaries, 93 percent of women will survive for more than five years. Only 19 percent of women with the disease, however, receive the diagnosis in this stage. Many receive the diagnosis in the advanced stages, which carry just a 30 percent chance for survival beyond five years.

Unlike prostate cancer, there is no reliable and easy-to-administer screening test for ovarian cancer, making awareness of the symptoms and risk factors even more critical.

According to the Johns Hopkins Ovarian Cancer Center of Excellence, the primary risk factors are family history, being age 50 or older, having no children, and past history of breast cancer. Hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women slightly increases the risk for ovarian cancer, while a nearly threefold increase in risk was found in women who had taken infertility drugs. A high-fat diet also appears to increase the risk.

The American Cancer Society advises women—and men—to eat right, be active, and maintain a healthy weight, to reduce the risk for cancer and other diseases.