Ovarian cancer is the eighth most common cancer, and fifth-leading cause of cancer death among U.S. women. The good news: If treated early, the 5-year survival rate is about 93%. But survival rates drop steeply as the disease progresses. In honor of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing the top 5 things every woman needs to know about this disease.
1. Symptoms tend to whisper
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages. That’s because symptoms – nausea or feeling tired – could be no more than an upset stomach or not getting enough sleep. Clearer signs tend to appear later, once the cancer has progressed. That being said, there are certain common symptoms you should look out for. They include bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, difficulty eating, feeling full quickly and having sudden urges to urinate. If you experience any of these symptoms and they persist almost every day for more than three weeks, see your doctor. Watch the video from Donnica Moore, MD, to learn more about ovarian cancer symptoms and why this disease is often misdiagnosed.
2. Factors that may increase your risk
The single greatest risk factor for developing ovarian cancer is family history. Having a first-degree relative (a sister, your mom) with ovarian cancer triples your chances of developing the disease. Also, women who inherit the breast cancer gene BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations have a 40% risk of ovarian cancer. But that only accounts for 15% of patients. The other 85% of women have no genetic reason for developing the disease. Some other things that may increase your risk: having never been pregnant (especially before age 30), being overweight and your age. Some studies also suggest there is a link between hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and ovarian cancer. The risk appears to be greatest in women who take estrogen for more than five years.
3. Factors that may lower your risk
According to Dr. Moore, using birth control pills (specifically for premenopausal women) is the number one thing women can do proactively to reduce their risk of ovarian cancer. Whether or not you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, taking birth control pills for at least five years (not necessarily consecutively) cuts your chances in half. Pregnancy (especially multiple pregnancies) and breastfeeding have also been shown to lower a woman’s risk, as well as undergoing tubal ligation or a hysterectomy. All of these factors decrease the number of times a woman ovulates. And studies have shown that a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer seems to decrease the less she ovulates.
4. Screening may not be a good option
Unfortunately, there is no reliable test for ovarian cancer, which is why it’s so important to pay attention to potential warning signs. When the disease is suspected, a doctor may order a transvaginal ultrasound and a blood test for cancer marker CA-125. These tests are typically reserved for women considered to be at high risk. After analyzing the results of a major study of 28,000 women screened for ovarian cancer, the United States Preventative Service Task Force concluded that these tests might do more harm than good because they lead to too many false positives.
5. Ovarian cancer is not a death sentence
Once you experience symptoms of, or are diagnosed with, ovarian cancer, it’s not too late. There are several ways to treat the disease depending on the type you have and if it has spread. Treatments include chemotherapy, surgery and/or radiation therapy. Talk to your doctor about the treatment options that are available to you as well as the benefits and side effects. For more information about ovarian cancer visit our Ovarian Cancer Center.