September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, a time to discuss the eighth-most common cancer affecting women in the United States. 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.
Thankfully, ovarian cancer is relatively rare. However, it is serious – in fact, it is the deadliest type of gynecological cancer. In 2020, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 18,518 new cases of ovarian cancer in the United States and 13,438 women died from the disease. These numbers may be low due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted screenings, diagnoses and reporting of a wide array of illnesses that year.
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, along with immediately reporting any symptoms or changes in your body are the keys to the early detection of ovarian cancer,” explains Dr. Melissa Bailey, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Frisco. “Early detection gives us the best opportunity to defeat this serious disease.”
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer can affect one or both ovaries. There are several types of ovarian cancer, but the most common is known as epithelial ovarian cancer, which develops on the surface of the ovary. Roughly 90% of ovarian cancers are caused by epithelial tumors.
There are several known risk factors for ovarian cancer. These include:
- Being 55 or older
- Being related to someone – such as a mother, sister, aunt or grandmother – who had ovarian cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer or endometrial cancer
- 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 outside the uterus
- Having mutations in the BCRA1 or BCRA2 genes – these are inherited gene characteristics that are known as breast cancer genes.
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.
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 pain
- Bloating or feeling full; difficulty eating
- Increase in the size of the abdomen
- 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
Unlike breast cancer, there is no standard screening test for ovarian cancer. Products and services that are marketed as ovarian cancer screening should be ignored, as they are not approved by the Food & Drug Administration.
Women should see their physician for an annual pelvic exam and report any unexplained symptoms quickly. If ovarian cancer is suspected, your doctor may recommend an imaging exam of the ovaries, such as an ultrasound. A blood test may also help diagnose the disease.
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 kill remaining cancerous cells.
“Even though ovarian cancer is relatively rare, it is quite serious,” says Dr. Joseph Behan, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Dallas. “If you have any of the risk factors for ovarian cancer, such as a family history of the disease or other cancers, you should discuss with your doctor in your next visit. The earlier ovarian cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment will be.”
This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians.
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