Surgeons from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recently removed a four-pound ovarian tumor from a 20-year-old patient. The successful surgery marked a rare instance of epithelial ovarian cancer in a young female patient, and both the patient and UT Southwestern are using the case in order to promote awareness about the symptoms of the disease, as well as how women should manage their health in terns of ovarian cancer prevention. Despite the fact that early detection is particularly difficult in cases of ovarian cancer, the new awareness campaign seeks to enable patients to not only to increase their possibilities of survival, but also their recovery options.
“It’s rare to find epithelial ovarian cancer in such a young patient,” explained Dr. Debra Richardson, an assistant professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and a gynecologic oncology surgeon at the Harold C. Simmons Cancer Center, after she identified a mass near the patient’s bladder. “My first priority was to remove the mass and establish the diagnosis.”
Katie Ballard, a 20-year-old SMU journalism major, was in her second week of her junior year when she started experiencing trouble urinating and weight gain. The student felt an increasing pain in the abdomen, as well as swelling, which led her to UT Southwestern Medical Center emergency room, where the physicians diagnosed her with ovarian cancer.
What is particularly relevant about the student’s case is that ovarian cancer can be very hard to diagnose early, since its symptoms are common and non-specific, which includes bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, or urinary urgency or frequency. Richardson, who also serves on the Medical Advisory Board for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, added that women who feel these acute symptoms at least 12 to 15 days a month should see a physician.
Katie Ballard’s tumor was still stage IA, which means it was only in one ovary, and it had not spread to the lymph nodes. During a four-hour surgery, Richardson and her team removed the mass, which weighed nearly four pounds. Due to the stage IA class of the tumor, the patient won’t need to undergo chemotherapy, a treatment commonly needed by patients in later stages. As a consequence of the early detection, Ballard was also be able to have a fertility-sparing surgery and not have her uterus and ovaries removed.
“It was so much bigger than I thought. It looked like a Thanksgiving turkey,” said Ballard, who had one ovary and one fallopian tube removed, as well as 30 lymph nodes and other biopsies, namely to her appendix. “I never expected my life to change so dramatically in five days.”
According to the American Cancer Society, almost 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are expected in the U.S. only this year, a disease with five-year survival rates of just 44 percent, which means that 14,270 people die yearly. Women are recommended by the UT Southwestern oncologists to undergo genetic testing for familial syndromes, as BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can increase the probabilities of developing breast, ovarian and other types of cancer, especially in patients with epithelial ovarian cancer.
“It was a relief to learn that the genetic tests were negative,” Ballard said. “I knew it would help me to stay focused, and I wanted to see my friends and be on campus. It’s made me a stronger person and I appreciate my family and friends even more. I’m proud I made it through to graduate on time this spring.”