Ovarian Cancer and Palliative Care

Understanding Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is cancer that grows in a woman’s ovaries. Damaged or deformed cells start to grow out of control. Although treatment has a high rate of success if the cancer is found at an early stage, in many cases it isn’t discovered until more-advanced stages when the cancer is harder to treat.

When ovarian cancer is suspected, a biopsy or small surgery is often performed. This is done to confirm the disease by taking tissue and fluid samples for biopsy (analysis). Some ovarian tumors are benign, which means they don’t grow into cancer.

Treatments for ovarian cancer are based on the stage of the disease, possible side effects, your preferences and overall health, and other considerations such as whether you plan to have children.

Depending on how far the cancer has spread, surgeons may remove larger or smaller portions of your anatomy. For some women, that may mean that childbearing is no longer possible. For others, hormones may be required to treat premature menopause.

Facing ovarian cancer is difficult. It can have a big impact on your emotional health, body image, sexual functioning and sexual identity—all of which may cause enormous stress for both you and your family.

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people with serious illness. It focuses on relieving the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness like ovarian cancer. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work alongside your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage of your illness. You can have it together with curative treatment.

Patient Perspectives: Christine’s Palliative Care Story

In this podcast, we hear from Christine Buehlmann, a California woman whose life changed dramatically after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and began receiving chemotherapy. Christine discusses how the physical and emotional symptoms of her disease and its treatment were hindering her quality of life, until she received palliative care.

Treating the Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer—How Palliative Care Can Help

Surgery can cause serious pain. Palliative care teams specialize in treating and controlling symptoms such as pain. This is critical for your quality of life, and will enable you to complete your curative treatments and carry on with daily activities.

After surgery, chemotherapy usually is ordered to further control the cancer’s spread. Since ovarian cancer is a very aggressive type of cancer, the side effects can be difficult to bear. Aggressive medical treatments therefore call for equally aggressive palliative care to help you tolerate the side effects.

Other symptoms of the disease and its treatment include bloating, painful swelling of the abdomen due to fluid buildup, persistent indigestion or gas, constipation, or changes in eating and in urinary habits.

Nausea and vomiting caused by the cancer or by treatments such as chemotherapy can be an ordeal. Your palliative care team can recommend a number of antinausea treatments. Malignant bowel obstruction is another troubling symptom. Your palliative care team can provide an aggressive, nonsurgical approach to addressing this discomfort.

Side effects of treatment may also include fatigue (feeling weak or tired), lack of energy, higher risk of infections, hair loss, loss of appetite, diarrhea and neuropathy (nerve pain). The palliative care team specialists will focus on easing any symptoms, as they work alongside your other doctors to relieve these complications.

Finding that you have ovarian cancer can feel overwhelming. It may therefore affect your emotional health. Stress, anxiety and depression are common symptoms of the disease. Your palliative care team will help you with your emotional concerns as well as your physical ones. Especially in the first few days after surgery, this help can be vital.

Helping you live with ovarian cancer is what palliative care specialists do. Before treatments begin, your palliative care team can help you find out if possible side effects can be treated preventively.

No matter the treatment or course of the disease, you deserve to feel as well as you can. Your palliative care team can help you to request and get treatment for any symptoms you are experiencing, not only for the underlying disease.

Your palliative care team can help you with all this and more. The team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety.

They team specialists can help you and your loved ones to make both large and small decisions. They will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and help you to clarify your goals for care.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one is facing ovarian cancer, ask your doctor for a referral to palliative care—the earlier the better. You can receive palliative care in the hospital, at an outpatient clinic and sometimes at home.

Although living with ovarian cancer is a difficult journey, your burden may be eased and the best possible quality of life achieved when palliative care is involved.

For more information, visit GetPalliativeCare.org. Take our quiz to find out if palliative care is right for you. And find providers in your area by visiting our Palliative Care Provider Directory.