Ovarian cancer patients encouraged to start with specialist

    A new study out of University of California, Irvine, confirms a troubling pattern other studies also have picked up on — in some cases, as few as a third of women with ovarian cancer receive the best care possible.

    The news is not surprising to some in the Philadelphia region who are treating the disease and advocating for its prevention. 

    In this community, it’s understood the problem lies in the fact that most women are treated by doctors and hospitals that see few cases of the disease and lack expertise in the protocol of surgery and chemotherapy that are credited with prolonging life.

    That wasn’t the case for the mother of Margaret Burton, a writer who lives in Narberth.  

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    “My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at Paoli Hospital. I believe it was stage 3,” Burton said.

    That was step 1.  Step 2, said Burton, was a “family decision” which led to her mother receiving treatment at a comprehensive cancer center in Philadelphia.

    “The family doctor recommended it, but if he hadn’t, living in the area, we knew what the options were,” she said. “But he did recommend it.”

    Burton’s story sounds like a no-brainer for those of us living in a region chock-full of nationally accredited cancer-care options.

    For many, specialist not first option

    But for countless others, specialized treatment for ovarian cancer is not par for the course. Far too often, women are not referred to a specialist, said Robin Cohen, executive director of the Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

    “She may be at a community hospital, simply referred to a general surgeon who operates on her, and then she’s referred to a general oncologist who maybe doesn’t give the standard treatment for ovarian cancer on a regular basis,” said Cohen. “So, she’s kind of gone through the system without going from specialist to specialist but going from someone without the proper expertise to the next person without the proper expertise.”

    That’s a familiar story, said Robert Burger who directs the Women’s Cancer Center at Fox Chase. Yet, by following the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for surgeries and chemotherapy, ovarian cancer patients can add time, in some cases a year or more, to their lives, he said.

    He said the new study highlights a need for family physicians to act as first responders.

    “There are sort of hallmark symptoms and signs of a diagnosis of ovarian cancer that a primary care physician should be aware of,” he said. “And when there is such a suspicion, then a consultation with a gynecologic oncologist is paramount.”

    Back to Margaret Burton’s story: in her mother’s case, the family doctor behaved like a first responder. Burton credits the care they chose with allowing Margaret’s mother to live another two years.

    Findings of the study have been submitted to a medical journal but have not yet been published.  They were presented this week at a meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology in Los Angeles.

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