DEAR DR. DONOHUE: In May 2003, I was diagnosed with diverticulitis. My symptoms for a month were diarrhea, bloating and an increased waist size. In June, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tell your readers about it. Some call it “the disease that whispers” because there are few symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. – N.H.

You have told them far more eloquently that I could.

Ovarian cancer is in fifth place on the list of cancers that occur in women. This year, in North America, more than 26,000 women will be diagnosed with it, and more than 14,000 will die from it.

A few warning signals put women and their doctors on high alert. Ovarian cancer is more prevalent in women who began menstruating before age 12, who had menopause later than age 51, who never had children or who have a mother, sister or daughter who had it.

Symptoms, as you say, in the early stages are nondescript and confusing. Bloating, abdominal fullness, back pain, fatigue and a frequent, persistent need to urinate are a few of those symptoms. All are easily mistaken for something else.

Blood tests are not helpful. The CA-125 blood test is useful in monitoring successful treatment for this cancer, but it is not a test that can be relied on to detect it.

When a suspicion of ovarian cancer is raised, a special kind of ultrasound helps detect it. A probe that emits sound waves is inserted into the vagina. The probe lies in close proximity to the ovaries, and that closeness yields clearer pictures than would be obtained from sound waves coming from the body’s surface.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My wife died of Alzheimer’s disease. I cared for her to the end, bathing, feeding and diapering her. A friend said that all Alzheimer’s patients get it because of something violent in their background. Is that statement true? – J.R.

That is not true.

Some research has tried to link head trauma to Alzheimer’s, but no definite link has been established. Doctors are frantically looking for its cause and for a cure for this cruel illness.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have low-back problems. Every time I see the doctor for my back, he has me lie down on the exam table, and he lifts my legs and asks if it hurts. I wonder what is going on. I do not want to ask him, as I feel I would be intruding. – W.S.

You are a most polite patient, but you have every right to ask such a question. Just say: “Doc, what the heck are you doing that for? And what does it say about my back?”

That test is the straight-leg-raising test. It’s not a high-tech test, but it has been used for many years, and it does provide some information on what causes a person’s back pain.

The patient lies on an exam table. The doctor raises one leg upward to 60 degrees with the knee kept straight. When the maneuver produces pain, it indicates that there is irritation of nerve roots coming from the spinal cord. Sciatica and a bulging vertebral disc are examples of problems that yield a positive test.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Something has been bothering me for years, and I need to know if I am to blame. I am 71. On Thanksgiving of 1960, I was pregnant with my fourth child. That day I had a martini while visiting neighbors. My son was a wonderful boy until his senior year in high school, when he experienced mental anxiety. His diagnosis was a chemical imbalance in the brain. He has been on medication ever since. Could my drinking that martini have caused his chemical imbalance? – A.H.

That one martini had no impact on your son’s chemical imbalance.

All pregnant women should abstain from alcohol, but that one drink did not cause your son’s problem.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Can herpes infect the eye? How does it do so? Is sex involved?

I visit an older woman who says she has a herpes eye infection. I didn’t ask her how she got it, but it does raise my curiosity. – N.J.

Herpes virus can infect the eye, and it is not a sexually transmitted infection. The most common way for the eye to become infected is through the patient’s own finger. If the patient has a cold sore, touches it and then touches the eye, transfer of the virus to the eye is highly possible.

If the infection is not treated, it can imperil sight.

Fortunately, there are eyedrops that usually cure a herpes eye infection. However, treatment can be long, and the infection can return after treatment has been completed.

There is an important lesson here. No one should touch a cold sore without promptly washing the hands. After touching a cold sore, virus coats the finger, and it can be transferred to many distant body sites.

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