Diseases that have subtle symptoms, or symptoms that can be attributed to other causes, can be dangerous. Ovarian cancer is one of these diseases.
Currently, ovarian cancer is the fifth-most deadly type of cancer. Thankfully, the rate of new diagnoses has been falling slowly over the past 20 years, due in part to wider use of oral contraceptives, which are known to reduce a person's risk of ovarian cancer. Mortality rates have been decreasing as well, thanks to improvements in treatment methods and earlier detection.
To help focus community and research efforts, September has been designated as Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, with organizations like the American Association for Cancer Research actively working to educate the public about the disease.
Here are some important facts about ovarian cancer, including key signs and symptoms that can lead to an earlier diagnosis and a more positive outcome.
Often, people with ovarian cancer have no symptoms during the disease’s initial stages. This makes it difficult to diagnose. However, when ovarian cancer can be treated before it advances, a person’s prognosis tends to be much better. Learning to recognize symptoms of ovarian cancer could save your life.
The most common signs and symptoms include:
• Bloating or swelling of the abdomen
• Unexplained weight loss
• Back pain
• Constipation, or other changes in your bowel movements
• The frequent urge to urinate
• Pelvic discomfort
Feeling abdominal pain and/or having constipation is something that many people don’t think twice about. But if you are a person with ovaries, and you have more than one of these symptoms or if one of these symptoms is recurring or worrying, make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away, especially if you have risk factors for ovarian cancer.
Many different risk factors can make a person more susceptible to developing ovarian cancer. These risk factors can be genetic or based on a person’s habits or lifestyle choices.
Ovarian cancer tends to be diagnosed at an older age, with Eastern European women at greater risk than women from other ethnic backgrounds. Being overweight or obese can also increase your risk.
Additionally, having a family history of either ovarian cancer or certain types of breast cancer may mean that you are at increased risk. Several known gene mutations have been linked to ovarian cancer, including BRCA1, BRCA2, BRIP1, RAD51C, and RAD51D.
Other potential indicators of increased risk include:
• Early or late first menstruation
• A history of endometriosis
• Taking estrogen-only hormone replacement therapy
• Never having been pregnant
Women who are using, or who have used, oral contraceptives have a lower risk of ovarian cancer. So if you have risk factors (for instance, genetic risk factors), ask your doctor about the pros and cons of taking birth control pills as a preventive method. Other forms of birth control such as tubal ligation (having fallopian tubes tied) and the use of IUDs have also been associated with lowering the risk of ovarian cancer.
In addition, a hysterectomy (removing the uterus) has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by about 30 percent.
If you notice that you have one or more of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Screening for ovarian cancer is difficult, which is why it is often diagnosed in later stages.
Typically, doctors diagnose ovarian cancer by doing an initial pelvic exam. From there, if there are areas of concern, they may order an ultrasound, CT scan, or blood tests to evaluate the health of your ovaries and fallopian tubes. In some situations, surgery is necessary to accurately diagnose the condition.
Once ovarian cancer has been diagnosed, there are a variety of treatment options available.
The most typical course of action involves both surgery and chemotherapy. A doctor may recommend removing one or both ovaries and the fallopian tubes to prevent the cancer from spreading.
Several types of chemotherapy are used to target ovarian cancer. This procedure can be performed both before and after surgery. Some doctors may also recommend immunotherapy or hormone therapy, both of which have been used successfully against some cases of ovarian cancer.
The primary reason that survival rates for ovarian cancer are relatively low is that only about 15 percent of patients are diagnosed at early stages, when treatment is most effective. Since ovarian cancer can develop undetected for so long, it’s important to be aware of potential risk factors so you and your healthcare team can be proactive about identifying possible signs and symptoms.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.