Ovarian Cancer: Get the facts, be empowered

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

There have been countless advances in diagnosing, treating and managing many cancers. Look at breast cancer: We continue to add to our body of knowledge on how to reduce the risk of breast cancer, the best ways detect breast cancer in its earliest stages and identify the best path forward for treatment.

This has led to more and more individuals beating one of the most prevalent cancers among women. The same is true for cervical cancer. The pap test and HPV screening has drastically reduced the number of women who die from cervical cancer.

One cancer for which we are still seeking an effective diagnostic and screening tool is ovarian cancer. There is no simple test that can identify a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. Lack of screening, coupled with the fact that symptoms often don’t appear until cancer has advanced, means that ovarian cancer sometimes isn’t diagnosed until it’s later stages.

Fortunately, there is good news. New treatments offer new hope to many women with ovarian cancer. Also, as with any health issue, the best way to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer is learning more about its symptoms and steps you can take to lead a healthier life.

Understanding your risk of ovarian cancer

A woman has a 1 in 78 chance of getting ovarian cancer in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. That number may seem low, but it still means that nearly 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2020. Ovarian cancer is also more common in older women than younger women. In fact, half of all ovarian cancers are found in women who are 63 years or older.

Other risk factors, besides age, may include:

  • Being obese or overweight
  • Having children after age 35 or not carrying a pregnancy to term
  • Taking certain hormone therapy after menopause
  • Family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer
  • Family cancer syndrome (BRCA, hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer, etc.)
  • Using fertility treatment
  • Breast cancer
  • Smoking

It’s important to note that much research still needs to be done on understanding some of these risk factors. For example, some studies have linked IVF (fertility treatment) to a higher risk of borderline or low malignant potential ovarian tumors. Other studies have not found an increased risk.

Also, hormone therapy can be used safely for many women with proper supervision and guidance from your doctor. Be sure to talk to your provider about any concerns, questions or risk factors you may have.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer

Many of the early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can be easily confused with other health issues. That’s why some women won’t notice symptoms or talk to their doctors until symptoms become severe, often when the disease is in advanced stages.

It’s important to know the signs of ovarian cancer so you can talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have, as early as possible.

Common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Abnormal periods
  • Bloating
  • Gas, nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lower abdomen pain
  • Pelvis feels full or heavy
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Unexplained back pain
  • Vaginal bleeding

Diagnosing ovarian cancer

If you’re at risk of developing ovarian cancer or you’re experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor. Together, you and your provider can discuss your history, risk factors and symptoms to make a plan that’s right for you. That may include:

  • Imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, to identify abnormal growths in the ovaries
  • Biopsy to confirm growths are cancerous
  • Tests, like a colonoscopy or PET scan, to identify if cancer has spread to other areas
  • Blood tests to check your red, white blood cells and platelets

Your provider may also recommend a CA-125 blood test as a screening tool for ovarian cancer. This test checks for a protein (CA-125) that is released by the reproductive system. When the protein is elevated, it may indicate ovarian cancer. In some cases, this blood test can identify ovarian cancer before symptoms appear. It’s important to keep in mind that elevated CA-125 levels can also be caused by other conditions, such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

Regular check-ups are also an important way to identify ovarian cancer – as well as any cancer or health condition – in its early stages. During these appointments, you’ll be able to discuss any changes to your health or new symptoms you’re experiencing.

Reducing your risk of ovarian cancer

The best way to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer is similar to reducing your risk of developing any type of cancer:

  • Eat healthy, including plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean protein
  • Stay physically active with at least 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days a week
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Quit smoking
  • Limit alcohol intake

If you have risk factors for ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor about the best way to manage those risks. Your provider and a genetic counselor can also help you understand how a family cancer syndrome, like BRCA1 or BRCA2, can increase your risk of cancer, and steps you can take to stay healthy.

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