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Speaking Out for Ovarian and Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month

Read Time: 3 minutes
Janice "Jan" L.B. Byrne, MD

Updated September 2022
Originally Published September 2017

From time to time, Huntsman Cancer Institute invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Jan Byrne (far left) with colleagues and Governor Herbert at a ceremony declaring September Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in 2019
Jan Byrne (far left) with colleagues and Governor Herbert at a ceremony declaring September Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in 2019

As an obstetrician diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I’ve heard many times: “You are so lucky—you know all about cancer and could be diagnosed really early.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Looking back, I actually had a lot of symptoms, but most were very vague and non-specific. Ovarian cancer can be hard to diagnose for this very reason.

In the spring of 2011, while traveling to present at several scientific meetings, I began to feel unwell. I told myself that I didn’t have time to be sick. But at some point I realized I spent more time lying in my hotel rooms than attending meetings. The only consistent symptom I had was a dull pelvic pain that never seemed to go away. I treated myself (twice) for a bladder infection without improvement. (Ovarian cancer apparently doesn’t respond to antibiotics!)

Finally, I saw one of my colleagues, who felt an abdominal mass. An ultrasound showed the mass to be in one of my ovaries. The next day, my gynecologic oncologist and I planned surgery for the next week. On May 9, 2011, I was diagnosed with clear cell ovarian cancer. While it was limited to one ovary and early stage, it was high grade, so chemotherapy was on the horizon.

Jan Byrne on a bicycle in front of the mountians
As a Huntsman Hero, Jan Byrne has cycled in Little Red six times and raised more than $10,000 for ovarian cancer research.

It may sound strange, but initially, the diagnosis of cancer was almost vindicating —I had seriously begun to think I was crazy, with a bunch of weird symptoms that made no sense. Then the reality of the diagnosis set in. I had never known an ovarian cancer patient who survived, and I felt like I was being handed a death sentence. In fact, the senior pastor of my church was being treated for ovarian cancer at the time I was diagnosed. She was my confidant, and she died during my treatment, which was devastating to me.

After six courses of chemotherapy and another major surgery, I was trying to cope with the “new normal” of being a cancer survivor. Cancer and its treatments change you forever, in ways you can’t anticipate. I was determined to make a difference for others facing the same diagnosis, so I became heavily involved in advocacy. Each year, approximately 22,500 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. More than 14,000 will die, most within the first year of diagnosis. If patients are diagnosed at early stages, there is a 93% five-year survival rate. Unfortunately, only about 15% of people are diagnosed early.

There is no screening test for ovarian cancer. I spend a lot of time at health fairs and other events educating women about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly

As part of the Survivors Teaching Students program of the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA), we teach medical students, OB-Gyn residents, physician assistant students, and nursing students about ovarian cancer. As an Advocate Leader with OCRA, I speak with elected officials about research funding, health care legislation, and other issues affecting the cancer community. I am a patient advocate with the Women’s Disease Oriented Team at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Finally, I founded the Utah Ovarian Cancer Alliance (UOCA) to increase education and awareness about ovarian cancer and to provide support to newly diagnosed ovarian cancer patients.

For many cancer survivors, there comes a time when you redefine your purpose in life. Often it’s when you decide there is more to survival than just being alive—you have to go on living and decide what you can do for others. As an ovarian cancer advocate, I speak out for myself. I speak out for others, especially those who can’t speak for themselves.

And for those who are no longer with us, I speak out for the families they’ve left behind.

Now, as a 10-year ovarian cancer survivor, I will be forever grateful for the wonderful care I received at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the support I continue to feel.

Cancer touches all of us.