September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, designed to increase awareness of a disease that can be hard to detect. While ovarian cancer is relatively uncommon, it is also quite dangerous. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), there are 20,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed in the United States each year and 15,000 women die from the disease annually.
Cancer of a woman's reproductive system is known as gynecologic cancer, of which there are several main types: cervical, uterine, vulvar, vaginal and ovarian. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other type of gynecological cancer. Cancer is always named for the part of the body it originates in, meaning ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, the two organs that produce female hormones and eggs.
One of the key reasons that awareness of ovarian cancer is so important is that there is no standard screening test for the disease. A physician will likely perform a pelvic exam if a patient reports symptoms that may be indicative of ovarian cancer. Those symptoms include vaginal bleeding or discharge, back pain or pain the pelvic area, bloating and a feeling of fullness while eating, and frequent urination, constipation or diarrhea.
A woman experiencing these symptoms does not necessarily have ovarian cancer, but it's important that she make an appointment to see her physician right away. If ovarian cancer is detected in its early stages, treatment is more likely to be effective and less invasive.
"Ovarian cancer is a serious disease, but one that a patient can defeat if caught and treated early," said Bill Maxwell, MD, a Texas Health Care member and obstetrician and gynecologist.
As with many other conditions in early stages, a woman may experience no symptoms at all. The American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians recommends that women see their physician for an annual pelvic exam, which can help detect abnormalities at very early stages - increasing the likelihood that treatment will be effective.
Treatment 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. Ovarian cancer can also spread to the abdomen. Chemotherapy is then used to kill remaining cancerous cells.
With respect to early detection and treatment, the NOCC reports that if the cancer is still confined to the ovary when treatment begins, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. The survival rate goes down when the cancer has spread, underscoring the importance of regular exams and taking any symptoms very seriously.
The causes of ovarian cancer are unclear, but there are identified risk factors. Women who get ovarian cancer are more likely to be 50-60 years of age, though the disease can occur at any age. Never having been pregnant, having undergone fertility treatment and smoking are considered factors that also increase a woman's risk.
"Regular checkups and sharing any unusual symptoms with your physician are the best ways to protect yourself," said Dr. Maxwell.
To help raise awareness in North Texas, the Dallas/Fort Worth Chapter of the NOCC will hold a Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer on November 14 at Lone Star Park in Grand Prarie.