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Promising research could bring early detection for ovarian cancer

Posted at 8:05 PM, Feb 25, 2021

It's a cancer that's known as the "silent killer" because there's no early warning system, but promising new research could be the difference between life or death for those diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Ovarian cancer can be a very sneaky disease,” said Kristen Greer, who has battled ovarian cancer. “I had no symptoms at Stage 3, which is frightening. I went in for (an annual exam) and upon examination, my doctor felt a mass.”

It's elusive, it's terrifying, and it's deadly.

“It was a very scary time. Ovarian cancer… the odds of survival with a late stage are not the best. It was [a] tough and difficult time,” Greer added.

She's made it her mission to advocate for ovarian cancer research and early detection. At 41, she had no idea nor signs pointing toward the cancer that was silently growing inside of her. She's in remission now, but it has a high rate of reoccurrence.

“I feel a little like there’s a ghost following me, and I have to constantly be aware of how I feel and do I have any symptoms,” Greer said.

Now, she speaks at medical schools and is the board chair of the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, or MOCA. It's one of the top nonprofit funders of ovarian cancer research in the nation. It’s given millions in funds in hopes of saving millions of lives.

It helps fund the work of physicians like Dr. Amy Skubitz, who figured out that a woman's routine annual test could be used to detect ovarian cancer.

“We would be able to find proteins that would be in the leftover fluid that is in the alcohol-based fixative then we could then say if the woman had markers, these proteins that the woman had ovarian cancer versus a normal woman not expressing these proteins in her Pap test,” Skubitz said.

Skubitz, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and director of the ovarian cancer early detection program, has been chasing this silent killer for more than two decades. Her interest in the elusive disease started more than 35 years ago, when her mother was diagnosed.

“She underwent all of the various chemotherapies and surgeries and actually survived, which is like a Stage 3, Stage 4 ovarian cancer and very rare and a miracle she survived from that,” Skubitz said.

She says it'll be a while before her research makes it into a doctor's office or turns into a home test, but her hope is that this is the beginning of the road toward early detection, which means catching the cancer before it spreads.

For Greer, it's an exciting and hopeful lead.

“I have a daughter; I want an early detection test for her and all the women out there, all the young girls,” Greer said.