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More women than ever are surviving ovarian cancer, study finds

Women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a disease that has long been associated with a very high death rate, are much more likely to survive now than they were decades ago, researchers say.

Lorna Cahn is living proof. She's one of a growing number of women benefiting from advances in ovarian cancer treatment.

"I know what was done for me and how my case was handled, and I feel lucky," she told CBS News.

When Cahn's cancer was diagnosed, it had already spread to other organs and she feared the worst. "I didn't want to talk to anybody, I wasn't going anywhere, you know, because you think you're going to die," she said.

But after undergoing months of targeted chemotherapy, and has now been cancer-free for more than two years.

Roughly 21,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. About 14,000 women will die of the disease. But the odds today are much better than they were a generation ago.

Dr. Jason Wright, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, and colleagues evaluated nearly 50,000 women who were diagnosed with ovarian cancer between 1975 and 2011. After taking into account advances in general medicine, results showed that women diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006 were about 50 percent less likely to die from the disease than women diagnosed in 1975.

"They're living with the disease for longer and longer periods of time as we have new chemotherapies, new drugs, new way to deliver drugs for ovarian cancer," Wright told CBS News.

The research, published in the June issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, found that the survival rate improved for women in all stages of ovarian cancer from 1975 to 2011.

Women with stage 1 cancers were 51 percent more likely to survive ovarian cancer in 2006. Those with more advanced stage 3 and 4 tumors were 49 percent more likely to survive than women given the same diagnosis in 1975.

Ovarian cancer is hard to detect early because symptoms -- abnormal periods, pain in the lower abdomen, weight gain or loss, severe backache -- may be mild or nonexistent.

Other major advances in the field could come from researchers working on new methods for early detection. Researchers from University College London have been testing the effectiveness of a blood test that looks for protein markers for ovarian cancer. They say they may have results later this year showing whether the screening method makes enough of a difference to help women live longer.