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Woman shares ovarian cancer story

Ruth Christenson (left) was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007. Her sister, Janet Rahm, has been her main caregiver. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

BY TARA BITZAN, Forum News Service

ALEXANDRIA — You’ve probably heard of breast cancer.

You may even know it is the most common cancer among women in the U.S., with one out of eight developing it at some point in their lives.

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You may also know that the five-year survival rate averages nearly 90 percent, depending on the cancer’s stage when detected.

But have you heard of ovarian cancer?

Did you know that while a woman’s risk of developing it is less than breast cancer — out of 71 women — the chance of surviving it is also much less – 46 percent, depending on the stage at diagnosis?

Ruth Christenson of Alexandria wants you to know about ovarian cancer, because knowing about it may save your life.

Christenson’s story

At age 51, Christenson started experiencing some mild “issues,” such as bloating, side pain and the feeling of having to relieve her bladder but not being able to.

“I basically just ignored them,” she said. “I didn’t feel I needed to make an appointment for that.”

She had religiously had annual physicals and been in relatively good health.

However, the problems persisted and with the urging of her co-workers and her mother, she went to see a doctor in January 2007.

“I was told it could either be intestinal blockage or a tumor,” she recalled.

She had a CT scan done right away. The results showed a large tumor. She was immediately referred to a gynecologist and was scheduled for surgery the next day.

What doctors found was a large four-chamber cancerous tumor, with seedings of cancer also found in the uterus, ovaries, colon and fallopian tube.

Christenson had stage T3c ovarian cancer.

“People often don’t realize they have this kind of cancer until it is advanced,” she said. “So many of the symptoms can be attributed to other things.”

A difficult battle

Christenson underwent an aggressive regime of chemotherapy and radiation.

After completing treatments, she went almost two years before the cancer recurred, with a tumor on her colon and two on her liver.

She had a second surgery to remove the tumors and again underwent chemotherapy treatments.

Nine months after her last treatment, the cancer was back again.

“At that point I started having allergic reactions to the chemotherapy and had to undergo desensitization, which meant the treatments that used to be three to four hours long were now 20 hours.”

Six months after her last treatment, the aggressive cancer returned.

“It came back four times, with each one shorter in the time-span of remission,” she said. “It can be pretty stubborn.”

Christenson is now on a maintenance program, which includes daily medications and traveling to the Twin Cities for appointments every three weeks.

“My sister has been with me to every appointment,” she said. “I give her a list of questions. During the appointments she takes notes and asks questions. When a doctor says ‘the cancer is back,’ you kind of gloss over. It’s important to have a support system with you.

“Things are stable for now,” she added. “I won’t have any more surgeries. We’re just focusing on quality of life now. Some tumors are growing and some are shrinking.

“I tolerate the medications I am on now the best of any so far,” she added. “But I have low strength and energy and am tired. I can still do things, but I do them in smaller pieces.”

‘Knowledge is power’

While Christenson knows there isn’t much she can do for herself at this point, she’s still fighting back by trying to bring ovarian cancer awareness to others.

And with September being Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, she decided now is the time.

“Everyone hears so much about breast cancer, but very little about ovarian cancer,” she said. “Not only is it a silent killer, but it’s also silent in terms of awareness. I want to change that.

“If I had known earlier, things could be different,” she added.

Christenson found out that based on her family history, she had a 30 percent chance of having the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene. Testing showed that she carried the BRCA 2 gene.

“To me, knowledge is power,” she said.