12 Women You Didn’t Know Overcame Ovarian Cancer
September marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about the women who beat the odds and overcame this disease referred to by many in the medical community as a “silent killer.”
The silent killer
One in 78 women will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime yet despite its prevalence, this disease is often called a silent killer. It’s the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women ages 35 to 74, according to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. So what makes it so silent? A routine pap smear doesn’t pick up on this cancer, which means it can go undetected. In addition, ovaries are deeply entrenched in the abdominal chamber, making it difficult to detect cancerous cells inside them or on their outer layer, at least within the disease’s earliest stages.
Symptoms include abdominal bloating, weight loss, quickly feeling full, constipation (or other changes in bowel routine), frequently needing to urinate, and these other symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
In terms of treatment, Mayo Clinic explains that, for ovarian cancer, this typically involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. The extent of treatment depends on how far the disease has progressed by the time a patient has been diagnosed and, as with any medical condition, early detection is key. The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is close to 47 percent.
At 25 years old How I Met Your Mother actress Cobie Smulders was given life-changing news: A diagnosis of “borderline” cancer, which she describes to Parade as meaning it wasn’t quite malignant and it wasn’t quite benign. Smulders underwent surgery more than once to remove the cancer. Now she shares her experience with ovarian cancer to raise awareness about the disease and the need for early intervention. These are the 14 things ob-gyns really wish you understood about ovarian cancer.
Movie and television star Kathy Bates, whose list of credits include Misery and Titanic, was diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer at age 55. She took action with great speed, having surgery and undergoing nine months of chemotherapy. Bates returned to work immediately, at the time choosing to stay mum about her health. Today she is vocal about her personal ordeal and works with campaigns like Stand Up To Cancer to raise both awareness and funding for research.
Broadway and film icon Carol Channing was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while touring with a production of Hello, Dolly! The show biz vet refused to let the disease put a pause on her career, and, would fly to New York once a week for cancer treatment before returning to whichever city in which the show was currently based. Channing passed away in 2019, from natural causes. While she took charge of her health as soon as she was diagnosed, many women miss this common sign of ovarian cancer.
Olympian Shannon Miller told the American Cancer Society she drew upon her rigorous gymnastics training while going through treatment for ovarian cancer. Diagnosed at the age of 33, Miller had a lot to fight for, including her 1-year-old son Rocco. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor and then followed that with nine weeks of chemotherapy in 2011. She now uses her public platform to raise awareness around ovarian cancer and share her story.
Broadway sensation Valisia LeKae of Motown the Musical was riding high in her dream career when she learned of her ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2013. An ovarian cyst was discovered during a routine exam, but LeKae had no symptoms of which to speak, so she planned to have the cyst removed and continue to perform. But that isn’t where the story ends. LeKae tells Look Good Feel Better that her condition was worse than originally thought—she had clear cell carcinoma of the ovary. After two surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy, LeKae was pronounced cancer-free. Despite an uptick in education about the disease, there are still plenty of myths about ovarian cancer you need to know.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2002, R&B singer Angela Winbush is a true survivor in every sense of the word. The St. Louis native has been vocal about her battle with the disease, even requesting footage of her toughest moments spent in Barnes-Jewish hospital be included in a TV One docu-series called Unsung. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “For me, the only reason I think I’m alive is so I could save other lives. It’s not about me looking cute all the time. It’s about my life being spared so I can show people they can make it through a tough situation.”
She may not be a household name in the United States, but pop singer Hikaru Utada made a splash on the music scene in Japan. According to The Japan Times, the songstress was just 19 years old when doctors discovered a benign tumor on one of her ovaries in 2002. She has reportedly been in remission after undergoing surgery and treatment. These are the 15 cancer symptoms women are most likely to ignore.
Amal KS/Hindustan Times/Shutterstock
Bollywood star Manisha Koirala has more than 80 professional acting credits to her name, but perhaps the actress’s most personal project is her book Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life. The tome chronicles her difficult battle with ovarian cancer, which began in 2012. After her diagnosis Koirala did take a five-year break from her career to focus inward, noting that she feels she previously took her life for granted.
Classic television fans will remember actress Connie Needham as Elizabeth Bradford on Eight Is Enough. Diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2009, Needham told RadarOnline she underwent a full hysterectomy. After successful treatment she remains in remission, urging women with these wise words: “Pay close attention to your body and don’t assume things are normal.” Read about one woman who was given only a month to live until a new medical test saved her life.
Olympian Raelene Boyle was a fierce competitor on the track, winning her first silver medal at the 1968 games in Mexico City. The Australian athlete put her fighting spirit to use when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer not once but twice, undergoing treatment to battle the disease both times. Prior to these diagnoses, in 1996, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, winning her fight against that as well.
British songstress Marcia Barrett noticed something didn’t feel quite right when she felt sharp pains in her abdomen. While tests displayed abnormal cells, doctors weren’t initially able to diagnose the singer with ovarian cancer. According to an interview with Express, it took a whole year before the disease was finally detected. To treat the condition Barrett had her ovaries removed and received both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If you’ve ever been curious, this is what chemotherapy is really like.
Author and New York-based reporter Joyce Wadler has overcome both ovarian cancer and breast cancer, sharing these experiences in her writing with books like Cured, My Ovarian Cancer Story. Not only has Wadler generously put her own stories in print, but she also uses her platform to encourage other women to schedule routine health exams and educate themselves on warning signs that something may be amiss.
- National Ovarian Cancer Coaliton: “What Is Ovarian Cancer?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Ovarian Cancer”
- Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance: “Statistics”
- Parade: “Cobie Smulders Opens Up About Ovarian Cancer and Mental Health”
- People: “Kathy Bates on Battling Cancer Twice and Surviving Lymphedema”
- American Cancer Society: “Lessons From the Olympics Help Shannon Miller Through Ovarian Cancer Treatment”
- LookGoodFeelBetter.org: “Valisia LeKae: Strength in Spirit”
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Angela Winbush tells of career struggles, cancer battle in ‘Unsung’”
- TLA Worldwide: Raelene Boyle biography
- Express: “How I battled for my life”