What every woman should know about ovarian cancer

September 07, 2016 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

September is the unofficial start of fall, but it is also officially the beginning of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. As local cities begin to Turn the Towns Teal to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and it’s symptoms, there are a few things every woman should know about the disease.

Family history increases your risk.
The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance says about 25 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary tendency to develop the disease. Knowing if you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene and asking questions about your family history can help determine if you are at higher risk. Women who have a first-degree relative with the disease from either their father or mother’s side of the family are at a particularly increased risk.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can often go ignored.
Some women with ovarian cancer notice a change in their bodies early on. However, since ovarian cancer symptoms are often subtle and vague, many women don’t notice them until the disease is more progressed. The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms

If you experience these symptoms that last for more than 2-3 weeks, visit your doctor. Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage because many women delay visiting their doctor.

Ovarian cancer cannot be prevented.
There is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, although there are strategies to reduce your risk. They include:

  • Oral contraceptives. Women who have used birth control pills for five or more consecutive years reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer; their risk continues to drop the longer birth control pills are used.
  • Breastfeeding and pregnancy. Having one or more children, particularly before age 25, and breastfeeding may decrease one's risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • Surgery. For women who are at particularly high risk for ovarian cancer and who are outside of their reproductive years, certain surgical procedures such as tubal ligation (tying the fallopian tubes), hysterectomy (removing the uterus) and oophorectomy (removing the ovaries) can greatly reduce the relative risk of developing ovarian cancer. However, all surgical procedures carry risks and should be discussed in full with your physician.

Pap tests do not detect ovarian cancer.
During a pelvic exam, your doctor can examine your ovaries for size, shape and consistency. A pelvic exam can find some reproductive cancers at an early stage, but the American Cancer Society says ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible for examiners to feel. Instead, Pap tests are used for screening cervical cancer. If you have signs of ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend an imaging test.

Women should see a gynecologic oncologist from the start.
Women with ovarian cancer who are treated by a gynecologic oncologist tend to have better outcomes than those who are not. Treatment options should be discussed with your doctor, but they often depend on your age, health and the stage of the disease. Treatment options can include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Clinical trials

Early diagnosis and determining the right treatment option are essential in the fight against ovarian cancer. Pay attention to any symptoms or changes in your body and talk to your doctor if you have questions.

How will you spread awareness? Tell us in the below comments.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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