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What You Should Know About Ovarian Cancer

What You Should Know About Ovarian Cancer

Although ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer for women in the United States, it’s the fifth most deadly. It’s easy to miss the symptoms in its earliest stages when chances of successfully recovering from it are best.

If you catch it early when it’s still limited to your ovaries, you have a five-year survival rate of 92-98 percent. What’s the best way to protect yourself against ovarian cancer? How do you know if you’re at a higher risk? How can it be treated? Let’s talk about what ovarian cancer is, what symptoms to look for, and how to manage the risks and diagnosis.

What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, the two small organs on either side of the uterus, which produce eggs as well as estrogen and progesterone. It usually starts on the tissue surrounding the ovaries (epithelial tumors), about 7 percent of the time in hormone-producing cells (stromal tumors), and rarely in egg-producing cells (germ cell tumors).

Who is at risk?

Ovarian cancer tends to be more common in postmenopausal women over the age of 50 or 60. Women who have never given birth or breastfed also have a slightly higher risk. Some hormone or infertility treatments may increase your chances of ovarian cancer.

If you’ve had breast, colon, or uterine cancer, or if a close relative has had ovarian cancer, you have a higher chance of getting ovarian cancer. Endometriosis and some genetic mutations in genes associated with ovarian cancer also increase your risk.

What are the symptoms?

This is the tricky part—the early symptoms of ovarian cancer are often subtle and may seem like symptoms of other issues. The best way to catch them is to pay attention to your body and check with your doctor whenever there’s a change.

Some things to look for include:

  • The need to urinate more than usual
  • Back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bloating and fullness around your lower abdomen
  • Constipation
  • Pain or pressure in your abdomen
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge, especially after menopause
  • A feeling of being too full to continue eating that happens sooner than usual
  • Pelvic pain during sex

Can you prevent ovarian cancer?

There’s no way to be sure you won’t get ovarian cancer. However, a few things seem to reduce the risk:

  • Taking hormonal birth control pills
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Having had your uterus or ovaries removed surgically

How to screen for ovarian cancer

There isn’t a standard screening for ovarian cancer. A biopsy is the only way your doctor can be sure that a tumor or cyst is cancerous.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms described above, your doctor may do a pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound, or in some cases, a CA-125 blood test.

The best thing that you can do for yourself is to stay up-to-date on your annual well-woman exams and tell your doctor about any concerns you have. They can also tell you whether you should receive genetic testing to assess your risk.

Treating ovarian cancer

Several factors decide what kind of treatment is best for you if you’re diagnosed, including your age, cancer stage, and whether you want children.

When it’s caught early, surgery is usually the best option for recovery. Either the tumor will be removed, or one or both ovaries will. When it’s more advanced, chemotherapy is often needed, sometimes in combination with surgery. Chemotherapy is sometimes followed by PARP inhibitors, which are enzyme-blocking drugs that prevent the cells from repairing their DNA.

At Frederick Health, we also encourage our cancer patients to try integrative or complementary therapies like Qi Gong, meditation, massage, and acupuncture to help with symptoms and the stress of being ill.

When you’re facing ovarian cancer

You’re not alone after your diagnosis. Our James M Stockman Cancer Institute is affiliated with the MD Anderson Cancer Network® and named one of the top 100 cancer centers in the U.S. by Cancer magazine. Once there, you’ll find an oncology team ready to put you at the center of a care plan designed for your personal needs. We’ll work with your primary care physician and your health care team to give you the best possible outcomes.

You have a wealth of care and treatment options that include chemotherapy, surgical oncology, integrative therapies, clinical trials, and a full range of women’s health services. Check out our resources about ovarian cancer, and if you have any troubling symptoms, please get in touch with us to make a well-woman appointment today - because we want you healthy, Frederick.