September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian cancer is a type of gynecological cancer, the cancers that originate in a woman’s reproductive system. Other types of gynecological cancer include cervical, uterine, vaginal and vulvar.
In 2018, the most recent year for which ovarian cancer statistics are available, 19,679 women were diagnosed with the disease and 13,748 died from it in the United States. 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. These are some of the reasons ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
Regular visits to your physician and immediately reporting any symptoms or changes in your body are the keys to the early detection of ovarian cancer.
While it is not known exactly what causes ovarian cancer, there are some established 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
- Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background
- 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 to help reduce risk of ovarian cancer:
- Taking birth control pills for five years or longer
- Tubal ligation
- Complete removal of the ovaries and/or fallopian tubes
However, discuss these strategies with your doctor, as they are not recommended for all women.
While ovarian cancer does not typically cause symptoms in early stages, the following may be indicative of the disease:
- Vaginal bleeding
- Pain in the pelvic or abdominal area
- Back or abdominal pain
- 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
There is no standard screening test for ovarian cancer. However, all women should see their physician for an annual pelvic exam. 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. 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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