From Our 2006 Archives

Coretta Scott King Had Ovarian Cancer

King Died in Mexico While Exploring Treatment Options, Family Says

ByMirandaHitti
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed ByLouiseChang,MD
on Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Feb. 1, 2006 -- When Coretta Scott King died on the evening of Jan. 30, she had ovarian cancer and was in Mexico exploring treatment options, according to her family.

"Mrs. Coretta Scott King was in Mexico for observation and consideration of treatment for ovarian cancer ," King's family said in a statement released to the media.

"She was considered terminal by physicians in the United States. Mrs. King and her family wanted to explore other options," the statement continues.

King, a civil rights activist and the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died at age 78.

The King family's statement doesn't describe those other options or list a cause of death, so it's not known if ovarian cancer took King's life. According to the Associated Press, doctors at the alternative medicine clinic where King had been staying attributed her death to respiratory failure.

Questions About Alternative Clinic

A report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raised questions about the clinic the allegedly attended, the Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, about 16 miles south of San Diego. On its web site, the clinic claims to have "a very eclectic approach to the treatment of chronic degenerative disease, diseases by and large considered incurable by the orthodox medical profession."

Most of the clinic's clients are cancer patients "who have been told that there is no hope, all traditional therapies have failed," states the clinic's web site.

Another web site, quackwatch.com, run by Stephen Barrett, MD, questions the background of Hospital Santa Monica's founder and director, Kurt Donsbach. According to Hospital Santa Monica's web site, Donsbach is a DC, ND, and PhD.

The King family's statement doesn't name the place where King was seeking treatment in Mexico.

About Ovarian Cancer

Here are some facts from the American Cancer Society on ovarian cancer:

  • It kills more U.S. women than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
  • It is the No. 4 cause of cancer deaths for U.S. women.
  • It is the 7th most common cancer for U.S. women, excluding nonmelanoma skin cancers.
  • It is most common in older women (about two-thirds of patients are 55 or older).
  • It is slightly more common in white women than black women.

When discovered in its earliest stages, ovarian cancer can often be treated, but early ovarian cancer is hard to detect. Many cases are discovered after the cancer has spread to other areas and organs, making treatment much more difficult.

No one knows exactly what causes ovarian cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Family history of ovarian cancer
  • Never having been pregnant
  • Being older than 50

Ovarian Cancer's Symptoms

Early ovarian cancer typically has few symptoms. The first sign of ovarian cancer is usually an enlarged ovary. The ovaries are located deep within the pelvic cavity, so swelling may go unnoticed until it becomes more advanced.

Symptoms of more advanced ovarian cancer include:

  • Swollen abdomen (caused by buildup of fluids produced by the tumor)
  • Lower abdominal and leg pain
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Change in bowel or bladder function
  • Nausea
  • Swelling in the legs

Women should keep up with medical check-ups, which can help with early detection of conditions such as cancer. They should also tell their doctor about any family history of cancer.

King's Heart Disease, Stroke

Besides ovarian cancer, King had also had other recent health challenges.

She had suffered a major stroke and minor heart attack in August 2005. Earlier that year, King had been diagnosed with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, a form of irregular heart rhythm. Atrial fibrillation is considered a risk factor for the development of ischemic stroke -- the most common type of stroke -- which is caused by a blood clot in the brain.

Heart disease and stroke affect people of all races, but blacks are at especially high risk. Heart disease and stroke are also leading causes of death for women, a fact that often gets overlooked.

Race, Sex, Heart Disease, and Stroke

Stroke and heart disease are major health threats for blacks, women, and the elderly -- three groups to which King belonged.

While strokes are more common among men, more women die of strokes, according to the American Heart Association.

Consider these facts from the American Heart Association's web site:

  • Blacks have a much higher risk of stroke than whites.
  • Blacks have substantially higher death rates for stroke than whites.
  • High blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity -- risk factors for stroke and heart disease -- are more common among blacks than whites.
  • Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women.
  • Stroke is women's No. 3 cause of death.

Stroke risk also rises with age, regardless of race or gender. Having a family history of stroke and heart disease also ups your risk of having those same problems.

Heart Attack, Stroke Warning Signs

Call for emergency help at the first sign of a possible stroke or heart attack -- don't wait to see if symptoms pass. Quick treatment can make a big difference, but many medicines for stroke and heart attacks must be given quickly.

The American Heart Association lists these stroke warning signs:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

The American Heart Association lists these warning signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. May occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs: These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness

"As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain," states the American Heart Association's web site.

Though race, age, and gender can't be changed, many other risk factors for stroke and heart disease can be managed or prevented. See your doctor to gauge and lower your risk.


SOURCES: King Center, "Statement by the King Family." American Cancer Society: "What Are the Key Statistics About Ovarian Cancer?" Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Clinic, Founder Operate Outside Norm." Quackwatch.Com: "Stay Away from Donsbach University Graduates." Quackwatch.com: "The Shady Activities of Kurt Donsbach." American Heart Association: "Stroke Risk Factors." American Stroke Association: "African Americans & Stroke: Know the Facts." American Heart Association: "Heart Attack, Stroke & Cardiac. WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Ovarian Cancer and Menopause." WebMD Medical News: "Coretta Scott King Dies."

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