The Overlooked Mental Health Costs of Ovarian Cancer
Whether directly or indirectly, we are all touched by the unfortunate realities presented by a cancer diagnosis. While we understand cancer attacks the body in a physical way, we do not always consider the mental health toll cancer makes us pay—and that fee becomes particularly substantial when cancer threatens to take hold of a woman’s reproductive system, especially those of child-bearing age.
Ovarian cancer is considered rare—but outcomes are often grim. While a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer is about 1 in 78, her five-year relative survival rate is less than 50 percent. The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 20,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2022, and that same cancer is likely to claim nearly 13,000 women’s lives. Often, the signs or symptoms are missed at the early stages of ovarian cancer, therefore a significant number of diagnoses happen in later stages. This has contributed to ovarian cancer becoming the fifth most deadly type of cancer for women.
The threat posed by ovarian cancer can be a significant source of stress and anxiety. According to the American Association of Cancer Research, women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are three times more likely than the general public to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or adjustment disorder. Even the potential threat of being diagnosed with such a deadly cancer stands to impact the state of a woman’s mental health.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 8th marked World Ovarian Cancer Day. The confluence of these two dates presents the opportunity to empower women to take control of their physical health as it directly impacts one’s mental well-being.
Women who have a family history of specific cancers have the opportunity to take action by undergoing Hereditary Cancer Testing. This assesses their personal risk for developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or a litany of other cancer types. For example, both men and women carry BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in their DNA, these genes are known as tumor suppressor genes and actually protect against cancer. However, pathogenic variants, often called mutations, can prevent these genes from doing their jobs. Mutations in either of these genes are associated with increased risks for certain types of cancers. Mutations in BRCA1 are associated with increased risk for breast cancer (in both men and women), ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Mutations in BRCA2 are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer (in both men and women), ovarian cancer, melanoma, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
Statistically, up to 58 percent of women with a BRCA1 mutation and 29 percent of women with a BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Having this knowledge, however, allows women to engage in more proactive management including transvaginal ultrasound screenings, symptom monitoring or even making preventative health choices.
One high-profile example of a preventative health choice comes from Angelina Jolie. After losing her mother to ovarian cancer, the actress and mother underwent genetic testing to find out if she inherited a mutated BRCA1 gene. When she was informed she carried a mutation, she—at age 39—made the proactive, and potentially life-saving choice to have a bilateral mastectomy as well as having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed (laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy).
While not all women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations will choose to take the same drastic preventative steps as Angelina Jolie, simply knowing about it can positively influence their future physical health decisions and their mental health quality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlight many options for those who do test positive for a BRCA gene mutation ranging from increased ovarian cancer screenings with transvaginal ultrasounds and CA-125 tests to engaging in healthy behaviors.
Women everywhere should feel empowered in knowing they can proactively mitigate their risks and ultimately decide what is best for their physical and mental health—ensuring they enjoy long, prosperous and joy-filled lives.
Valerie Palmieri is the executive chairwoman of the Board of Aspira Women’s Health.