What Every Woman Needs to Know About Ovarian Cancer
If you’re a woman of reproductive age who goes to the gynecologist regularly, you’re familiar with breast self-exams and Pap smears, diagnostic tools for breast cancer and cervical cancer respectively. You know what the pink ribbon stands for, and that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (here’s what you can do to reduce your risk).
What you’re probably less familiar with is ovarian cancer, the teal ribbon, and that September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. I wasn’t either, until my mom was diagnosed with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer almost two years ago. She passed away this summer from the disease.
This “silent killer” will claim 14,000 women’s lives this year alone, according to the American Cancer Society. Only 15 percent of cases are caught at Stage 1. It’s not all bleak, though. Knowing the risk factors and signs can help you make important lifestyle and screening choices that can help reduce your risk.
Identifying Your Ovarian Cancer Risks
An estimated 20 percent of ovarian cancer patients have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation that predisposes them to breast and ovarian cancer. Although you can’t change your genetics, this gives you actionable information, says Dr. Andrew Berchuck, the director of the Duke University Division of Gynecologic Oncology.
Another consideration: Studies show a link between higher incidences of ovarian cancer and women who have ovulated more. “As modern women ovulate more,” says Berchuck, “it becomes more of a problem. Historically, women ovulated a lot less because they were pregnant or breast feeding more.”
Whether or not a woman has the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, one major step she can take is the use of birth control pills. Studies have shown that taking the pill for five years or more diminishes risk for the disease by 40 percent, due to reduced ovulation. Women can also decide if they want to undergo prophylactic surgery to remove their ovaries while still healthy, Dr. Berchuck says.
Ovarian Cancer Screening and Symptoms
Because of limited symptoms at early stages and no effective screening test, most ovarian cancer cases are discovered at advanced stages. These diseases are associated with less than a 40 percent chance of five-year survival, according to the American Cancer Society.
Once signs are present, many are also commonly associated with benign diseases, which can be confusing. Some of the symptoms include bloating and pelvic or abdominal pain. However, when ovarian cancer causes these symptoms, they occur more often or are more severe.
Women should consult their doctors if they are experiencing these symptoms either for two weeks or more or if pain is present more than 12 times per month, Dr. Berchuck says. From there, if the oncologist suspects it may be ovarian cancer, she will likely order a CT scan or ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test. An elevated CA-125 level (a protein found in the blood) may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer.
Treatment will often include a combination of strategies (for instance, a hysterectomy with removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries and chemotherapy). Newer biological ovarian cancer treatments, including PARP inhibitors (which prevent DNA repair) and antiangiogenic drugs (which prevent the development of small blood vessels that feed tumors) have been approved recently and can help some women. Immunotherapies that activate the immune system to fight the cancer are also under investigation.
While there’s no cure for most patients with advanced stage disease, Dr. Berchuck says, “new therapies are leading to more prolonged survival, and that’s exciting.”
To learn more about ovarian cancer, visit the American Cancer Society’s website.