The most important facts to remember during National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

The most important facts to remember during National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Even though the rate of ovarian cancer diagnosis has been steadily declining for the past 20 years, we shouldn’t let our guards down.  Awareness is a key factor that will contribute to our health.

Ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer” due to lack of symptoms.  The symptoms are so common that they are often misdiagnosed as other conditions.

“Ovarian Cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States because the majority of women are diagnosed at a late stage after cancer has metastasized.  Five-year overall survival is dismal at 45%; however, if the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, survival rates greatly improve to over 92%”, comments Peg Ford, ovarian cancer survivor and President/Co-Founder of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of San Diego.

Early detection saves lives; however, early screening tests  are not yet fully developed. You can ask your gynecologist to order imaging tests, particularly if there are abnormal bleeding or other unexplained symptoms.

Having the correct information to make the right decision regarding your health is especially important if there is a history of reproductive cancer, including breast cancer, in your family.  According to the American Cancer Society, “scientists continue to study the genes responsible for familial ovarian cancer. This research is beginning to yield clues about how these genes normally work and how disrupting their action can lead to cancer. This information eventually is expected to lead to new drugs for preventing and treating familial ovarian cancer.  Research in this area has already led to better ways to detect high-risk genes and assess a woman’s ovarian cancer risk. A better understanding of how genetic and hormonal factors (such as oral contraceptive use) interact may also lead to better ways to prevent ovarian cancer.”

Research on ovarian cancer is encouraging.  This study led by Ernst Lengyel, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago, has found a way to slow down the invasion of cancer to healthy tissue by analyzing the relationship between fibroblasts –or cells in connective tissues such as fat—and the cell’s process of metabolizing their own stored glycogen into glucose.  Glycogen is a form of glucose that the cell warehouses for future use.  “The supply of glucose fuels the invasion of other tissues, which, in turn, leads to a more aggressive tumor and rapid metastasis”, this article determines.

Awareness and Prevention are key!  Know your stats and risk factors.

To put things into perspective, The American Cancer Society estimates that:

  • About 22,240 per year women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
  • About 14,070 per year women will die from ovarian cancer.
  • Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
  • A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 75.
  • This cancer mainly develops in older women. About half of the women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are 63 years or older. It is more common in Caucasian women than African-American women.
  • Even though ovarian cancer has a low incidence, it is typically diagnosed at an advanced stage and the overall five-year survival rate is poor: at best only 45% of women diagnosed will survive.

Understanding the risk factors associated with ovarian cancer is of significant importance:

  • Estrogen hormone therapy, especially with long-term use and in large doses.
  • Age when menstruation started and ended. If you began menstruating before age 12 or underwent menopause after age 52, or both, your risk of ovarian cancer may be higher.
  • A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by inherited gene mutations – BRCA1 and BRCA2.  Women with these mutations also have a significantly increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Never being pregnant.
  • Fertility treatment.
  • Smoking.
  • Use of an intrauterine device.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Learn about the symptoms.  It may save your life! 

Of concern is the commonality of the symptoms, which at times may lead to a misdiagnosis.  Doctors have compiled a list of the symptoms most reported from women with ovarian cancer.  If you experience any of the following repeatedly for an extended period of time during a month, make sure you talk to your doctor:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)

Other issues that might accompany these symptoms include fatigue, an upset stomach, back-pain, pain during sex, constipation, menstrual changes and abdominal swelling with weight loss.  The tricky thing is that the discomfort caused by these nonspecific symptoms are often mistaken for more common benign conditions such as constipation or irritable bowels.  The key issue is having these symptoms REPEATEDLY in a month.

The problem with early detection of ovarian cancer is that physicians typically do not address ‘ovarian health’ on a regular basis unless there are some symptoms present.  The tests that are used to screen for ovarian cancer start with a complete pelvic exam, and should include transvaginal ultrasound. The CA-125 test only confirms there is a high probability of such cancer being present and is used to monitor cancer survivors after they are diagnosed and have received initial treatment.

Although an early screening test for ovarian cancer is not yet fully developed, you can ask your gynecologist to conduct a pelvic and rectal exam.  Imaging tests such as an ultrasound or a CT scan can also be of assistance should there be anything abnormal in your pelvic exam.

Most importantly, stay informed, and stay on your path to health!    


About the Doris A. Howell Foundation:

For the past 23 years, The Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research has been dedicated to keeping to women we love healthy by making a long-term, positive impact on women’s health.  To date, it is the premier organization advancing women’s health.

The organization does so by funding scholarships to students researching issues affecting women’s health; providing a forum for medical experts, scientists, doctors, and researchers to convey timely information on topics relevant to women’s health, and by funding research initiatives that improve the health of under-served women and increase awareness and advocacy in the community; bringing women’s health research to a full cycle.                                                                                                                                                                                                              ###

Summary & Design prepared by Carolyn Northrup and revised by Carole Banka, PHD with information from the following sources:!

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