Identical twin sisters Teresa Swain and Lisa Simmons have done everything together. They were born holding hands and raised their families in identical houses. Now the sisters have a new shared life mission: to spread awareness about ovarian cancer as they both battle the disease.
Simmons was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 59 in May 2020 after noticing some unusual bloating and numbness. She had a massive tumor that filled her abdomen. Her sister was devastated.
“There's no way I can live without her,” Swain told NBC's Kristen Dahlgren on TODAY.
After her sister’s diagnosis, Swain got herself checked out. At first, her results showed no cancer. She did discover that like her sister, she has a BRCA gene mutation, which can put people at a higher risk for ovarian and breast cancer.
Swain planned to have her ovaries removed to reduce her own risk of the disease. But then she noticed some unusual bloating, and she, like Simmons, was ultimately diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
She said her first thought when she received her diagnosis was that at least she and Simmons were in it together.
“I don't have to do it alone,” Swain said, “'cause I had her.”
Now, they are both undergoing chemo and maintenance therapy together. As of today, they are both cancer-free, their doctor told TODAY. However, they will need to be monitored for the rest of their lives because there is a high risk of occurrence with late-stage ovarian cancer.
Swain shared what she wants other women to know about being aware of their bodies and getting checked when something seems off.
“We just really want women to really be in tune with their bodies, and be advocates for themselves,” she said.
Their doctor, Dr. Sarah Goodrich, an OB-GYN based in Indianapolis, outlined some of the warning signs to look out for when it comes to ovarian cancer.
“Don't write off the bloating that's persistent,” she said. “Don't just think, ‘Oh, I keep getting a urinary tract infection.’ Maybe it's not what it is. We see that commonly. People think, ‘Oh, I have a yeast infection again. Or a UTI again.’”
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar joined TODAY to share some of the common risk factors and symptoms for the disease.
She outlined some possible symptoms to watch for, including:
- Feeling full too quickly.
- Difficulty eating.
- Pelvic pain or pressure.
- Abdominal or back pain.
- More frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge.
She noted that because some of these symptoms are so common and may not immediately seem like red flags, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a later stage.
Azar also shared more details about BRCA gene mutations and how they can increase the risk of some cancers.
“We all have BRCA genes, but it’s mutations in the BRCA genes that actually confers the risk," she said. “For ovarian cancer, the risk is greatest with the BRCA1 mutation."
“In terms of who should get tested, if you know that you have a parent who is BRCA positive, you have about a 50% chance of being BRCA positive yourself,” she continued. “But I think it’s also really important to remind folks that if you have the mutation, (it) does not automatically mean you are going to get cancer. The majority of breast and ovarian cancers are actually not from inheritable risks.”
Azar also outlined several risk factors for ovarian cancer, including age, a family history of breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer and a personal history of breast cancer.
Never having given birth, or giving birth after age 35, can also increase your risk, as can being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.