Ovarian Cancer: The Real Danger

Angelina Jolie’s announcement brought more awareness to breast cancer, but its deadly counterpart could use some equal PR fanfare

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Angelina Jolie’s shocking announcement that she had preemptive surgery and removed her breasts because she was a high-risk candidate for breast cancer made worldwide news. She was lauded, correctly, for her bravery in making such an announcement and for undergoing the surgery, something that many other less famous women have done before her.

But, later in the week, it was also reported that she planned to get her ovaries removed. That news was not met with quite the same fanfare. Google “Jolie breasts” and “Jolie ovaries,” and you’ll be met with triple the searches for the former over the latter.

It’s too bad that Jolie placed such an emphasis on her double mastectomy and not the other surgery she was planning to have, because of the two, ovarian cancer is the far more brutal disease.

There’s a simple reason for the media’s obsession with Jolie and her breasts. Besides the fact that Jolie is one of the biggest sex symbols in the world, breasts are visible, we fetishize them, and rate women’s physical beauty on them. Most people wouldn’t know what an ovary looks like. (And really, they are quite ugly, bloody blobs. Not exactly great for illustrating t-shirts and posters.) Breast cancer, despite having high survival rates, is an entire cottage industry, with a massive PR and marketing machine devoted to raising awareness around it that would make major brands jealous, despite the fact that of all the cancers in the world, it is one of more survivable.

You would think from all the fanfare breasts are the most vital part of a woman, when in fact, they have very little use, other than being aesthetically pleasing. In fact, one could even say that women don’t technically even need them anymore to nurse, what with the modern invention of baby formula.

But slicing off your breasts is considered a far more transgressive body modification than removing ovaries—even though ovaries are what are actually responsible for bringing life to the world. To lose your breasts is to lose the symbolic, visual cue of your supposed femininity and womanhood. This terrifies men–and inspires fear in the hearts of some women that they will no longer be considered desirable.

But ovaries aren’t sexy, and ovarian cancer is a hard sell, in part because it’s so very dire. I had a friend who had a history of ovarian cancer in her family—and went for check ups twice a year. Despite her preventative measures, she was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2001. By Thanksgiving, she was dead.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2013 there will be about 22,240 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer; of those cases, 14,030 will die. That’s a 37 percent survival rate. (By comparison, breast cancer has a 78 percent survival rate).

Ovarian cancer is so deadly because it takes so long to be detected and it spreads so quickly. There are no fun tests involving squeezing of your breasts; by the time there are symptoms and pain requiring a trip to the gynecologist, the cancer has often metastasized. With breast cancer, women have a 67 percent five-year survival rate as late Stage 3 (up to 88 percent for Stage 1). By contrast, only fifteen percent of ovarian cancers are detected early enough to have a fighting chance—with a 93 percent survival rate beyond five years. Comparatively, Stage 3 ovarian cancer has a survival rate of 34 percent.

Ovarian cancer has an insurmountable PR problem: it would be hard to dress up those bleak facts with pretty pink bows, peppy slogans, and cheeky t-shirts. There are far fewer survivors than victims to film uplifting videos about. Ovarian cancer could have used more star wattage and lip service from the likes of Jolie. Though she did the world a service by drawing attention to her preventative measures, next time, one hopes she’ll shine an even brighter spotlight on the more deadly, but less sexy, cancer.

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