Stopping Ovarian Cancer

Cutting-edge advances are transforming ovarian cancer from a death sentence into a disease women can beat. Read on for the detection and treatment breakthroughs that are already saving lives.

Tracy Walker/
Four years ago, Angie DeWilfond of moline, Illinois, was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. "I was distraught," says the 41-year-old. "I couldnt bear the thought of not being around to raise my kids." She underwent surgery and chemo twice; both times, the cancer came back. Then in November 2010 she enrolled in a clinical trial of a new class of drugs called PARP inhibitors. Amazingly, blood tests now show that her tumor markers have dropped to the normal range.

"If the drug continues to work, I could survive on it for a very long time," DeWilfond marvels.

And thats a major deal. No one wants cancer, but the ovarian kind in particular can seem like the worst-case scenario. In fact, its the most fatal gynecologic cancer. Thats because its symptoms are subtle, so it usually isnt caught until it has spread to the surrounding tissue, making it more difficult to treat. Just 20% of women with ovarian cancer are cured—meaning the illness never comes back—after undergoing surgery and chemo.

But lately theres been reassuring news: Death rates from the disease have been decreasing (1.7% per year since 2002, according to new data). And thanks to the latest breakthroughs, even women with more advanced cancer are living longer than ever.

"Short of finding a cure, thats our goal: to turn ovarian cancer into a manageable illness. Were on our way," says Linda Duska, MD, associate professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Virginia. Heres why:

Fewer women are getting the disease
The rate of new cases of ovarian cancer has declined by 1% each year since 1992 (about 22,000 women will be diagnosed this year)—possibly because so many women today are on the Pill, says Deborah Armstrong, MD, associate professor of oncology and OB-GYN at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore.

open quoteAnother reason to praise the Pill: This form of birth control lowers your risk of ovarian cancer by reducing the number of times you ovulate.close quote
—Health magazine, September 2011

The Pill prevents ovulation; the fewer times a woman ovulates over a lifetime, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer.

Surgeons are operating smarter
In the past, if you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer, youd typically have just your ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus removed, even if the cancer had spread—doctors feared that the risks of cutting into additional organs outweighed the benefits. But surgeons today are getting more aggressive, seeking to remove all evidence of cancer from the get-go, says Barbara Goff, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at the University of Washington. "Removing every last bit can make a difference in survival rates," says Dr. Goff, "and maybe even cure rates."

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Ginny Graves
Last Updated: August 10, 2011

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