Canadian actress Samantha Weinstein dies from ovarian cancer: Are young women at risk?

The "Carrie" star was diagnosed with the disease 2.5 years ago.

Samantha Weinstein passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 28. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Samantha Weinstein passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 28. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Canadian actress and musician Samantha Weinstein — most known for appearing in the 2013 remake of "Carrie" — has died from ovarian cancer at the age of 28.

Weinstein passed away on May 14 at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Ont. She was diagnosed with the disease 2.5 years ago.

After her diagnosis, Weinstein's father said she chose to live life to the fullest. She travelled to Japan and Hawaii, and donated her time and resources to charity.

"Her infectious, positive attitude actually changed the way other people live," her mother said in a report initially published by The Canadian Press.

While Weinstein's death is a tragedy, health professionals want people to know that ovarian cancer typically doesn't develop in younger women.

Dr. Michelle Jacobson, an OBGYN and menopause specialist at Women's College Hospital, told Yahoo Canada dying from ovarian cancer at a young age is extremely rare.

"The type of ovarian cancer that is often lethal is more commonly found in older women or in younger women when caused by a genetic mutation, but even then still not usually before 35," Jacobson said.

Read on to learn about the signs and misconceptions of ovarian cancer, and how to reduce your risk of the disease.

What is ovarian cancer?

According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, "ovarian cancer refers to a group of distinct cancers that originate at or near the ovaries."

The ovaries are reproductive glands found in female bodies. Each woman has two ovaries that are located on each side of the uterus in the lower abdomen.

For reproduction, the ovaries produce eggs and the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Ovarian cancer, computer illustration and light photomicrograph. This cancer is most common in women over age 50 and in those who have never had children; less common in women who have taken oral contraceptives. The primary form of cancer may spread to other organs. In most cases there are no symptoms until an advanced stage. The first symptom is a vague abdominal discomfort and swelling. Ovarian cancer is treated by surgical removal of the growth, which may involve removal of the ovary, fallopian tubes and even the uterus. Anti-cancer drugs would follow.
Ovarian cancer is most common in women over age 50 and in those who have never had children. (Getty Images)

The ovaries are made up of three main kinds of cells: epithelial cells found on the outer surface of the ovary; germ cells found inside the ovary (and form the eggs); stromal cells forming the structural tissue that holds the ovary together. Each of these cells may develop into a different type of tumour.

Ovarian cancers can be divided into two categories: epithelial and non-epithelial.

Epithelial ovarian cancer is the most common type, making up approximately 85 to 95 per cent of cases. It starts in the cells that cover the lining of the fallopian tube or the ovary.

Germ cell ovarian cancer starts from germ cells (or the cells from which eggs are formed) inside the ovaries. This type of cancer tends to affect those in their twenties, but can happen at any age.

"The most common type of ovarian cancer usually occurs in older women over the age of 50," said Dr. Alison Ross, Director of Knowledge Mobilization at Ovarian Cancer Canada.

"The average age of diagnosis is 63. But rarer types like germ cell is more common in younger women and sometimes teenagers," Ross told Yahoo Canada.

Doctor holding an ovarian cancer awareness ribbon.
According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, "ovarian cancer refers to a group of distinct cancers that originate at or near the ovaries." (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the risks and symptoms in younger people?

It is possible that ovarian cancer may not produce any signs or symptoms in its early stages, but appear as the tumour grows and changes the body.

Possible symptoms of ovarian cancer could be bloating, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, urinary changes and abdominal and/or pelvic pain and discomfort.

While symptoms don't typically differ for younger people versus older women, Ovarian Cancer Canada ran a study that concluded younger patients might experience more abdominal pain and menstrual irregularities.

Jacobson added that because these symptoms are so common, it's important to understand any persistent changes in your body.

Woman having painful stomachache. ovarian cancer
Abdominal pain seems to be a more common ovarian cancer symptom in women under age 45. (Photo via Getty Images)

"The problem with ovarian cancer is that there is no screening that has ever been shown to be effective…So we have to be on the lookout for symptoms, but the symptoms are quite vague," said Jacobson.

"So what I usually try to remind people is that if this is happening because of cancer, it is going to be progressive. It's not going to go away. And when that happens, people should get investigated."

Misconceptions in younger patients

While many often feel dismissed or frustrated at the doctor's office, it's particularly common in younger patients who have ovarian cancer.

Like breast cancer, some health professionals might tell women they are "too young" to have ovarian cancer, when in reality that's not the case — even if it might be less common.

"If a younger woman goes in with symptoms of ovarian cancer, it’s very likely that the healthcare provider will investigate much more common and less serious conditions, instead of ovarian cancer," Ross said.

"Family doctors are trained to see horses, not zebras, so they're trained to see these common symptoms for what they probably are (G.I. upset, for example), rather than ovarian cancer."

However, if you are experiencing some of the common symptoms including bloating or abdominal discomfort, Ross said it's important to remember that it doesn't mean you have cancer. Instead, monitor how you feel and call your doctor if your symptoms are new and persist for three weeks of more, she advised.

The birth control pill can help prevent ovarian cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)
The birth control pill can help prevent ovarian cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)

Is there a way to prevent ovarian cancer?

Two methods that can help prevent ovarian cancer are taking birth control pills and surgical intervention.

"Taking birth control pills for up to 10 years can reduce your personal risk of ovarian cancer by up to 50 per cent," Jacobson said.

"This is true specifically for women who get more aggressive and more common high grade serous ovarian cancer, or ovarian cancer that's related to endometriosis. It's not as true for women who get these rare tumors under 30 years old."

Ross added the incessant ovulation hypothesis suggests ovarian cancer could be related to the number of times a person has ovulated across their lifetime. As the birth control pill disrupts ovulation, it could therefore lower your risk of the disease.

Another method of prevention is surgical intervention. In this case, the ovaries and/or their fallopian tubes are removed before the cancer actually develops.

"One of the things that is also theoretical... is the idea that high grade serous ovarian cancers – the ones more common in older women or genetically caused – actually originate in the end of the fallopian tube, rather than in the ovary itself," according to Jacobson.

"Removal of the fallopian tube and the ends of the tube decreases the cancer risk by an estimated 30 50 per cent."

Low angle view of group of people in circle and holding their fists together during a group therapy session. People with fist put together during support group session.
If you or a loved one are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it's important to create a stable support system. (Photo via Getty Images)

Advice for ovarian cancer patients

When it comes to advice for ovarian cancer patients, Jacobson recommends taking advantage of any support you can.

"Any diagnosis with cancer, and particularly in young women, is going to be difficult. But cancer centers are well supported in terms of providing mental health and counseling support for women who are struggling with their diagnosis," she said.

Jacobson added that it's also important to trust your healthcare team and their specialized skills.

Ross recommended patients or families visit the Ovarian Cancer Canada website for educational and patient resources, as well as to be connected with other patients, support groups or healthcare specialists.

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