September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a time to shed light on the eighth-most common cancer affecting women in the United States. Ovarian cancer is a type of gynecological cancer, cancers that originate in a woman’s reproductive system. Other types of gynecological cancer include cervical, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.
Each year in the United States, roughly 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While the disease is relatively rare, it is serious. Ovarian cancer can be treated effectively in its early stages; however, it is challenging to screen for and diagnose. In addition, it generally produces no symptoms early on, so is often diagnosed at later stages.
“Regular exams by your physician and immediately reporting any symptoms or changes in your body are the keys to the early detection of ovarian cancer, and early detection is the key to beating this cancer,” says Dr. Lindsay Breedlove Tate, an obstetrician and gynecologist.
While it is not known exactly what causes ovarian cancer, there are some known risk factors for the disease. These include:
Age: women who are 50-60 years old are more at risk
Heredity: a relative such as a mother, sister, aunt, grandmother having had ovarian cancer increases risk
Having ever had certain other types of cancer, such as breast, colon or uterine
Having never given birth
Having had endometriosis, a condition that causes tissue from the lining of the uterus to grow elsewhere in the body
Mutations in the BCRA1 or BCRA2 genes – these are inherited gene characteristics that are known as breast cancer genes. They also increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
In addition, the following are known risk-reducing strategies: taking birth control pills for five years or longer, breastfeeding, tubal ligation and complete removal of the ovaries and/or fallopian tubes.
While ovarian cancer does not typically cause symptoms in early stages, the following may be indicative of the disease:
Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area
Bloating or feeling full; difficulty eating
Urgent or frequent need to urinate
All of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than ovarian cancer, but any one of them is reason to see your doctor for examination.
Diagnosis and Treatment
“While there is no standard screening test for ovarian cancer, all women should see their physician for an annual pelvic exam,” says Dr. Taylor Bradley, an obstetrician and gynecologist. “The earlier ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the greater the likelihood that treatment will be effective. In fact, if the cancer has not spread beyond the ovaries when treatment begins, the five-year survival rate is improved.”
Treatment for ovarian cancer typically includes a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. A surgeon will remove the cancerous ovaries, and depending at what stage the cancer is, may also remove the fallopian tubes, uterus and lymph nodes located near the reproductive system. Chemotherapy is then used to treat remaining cancerous cells.
“Even though ovarian cancer is relatively rare, it is quite serious,” says Dr. Bradley. “If you have any of the known risk factors for ovarian cancer, such as a family history of the disease or other cancers, you should visit with your doctor about your risk.”
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