September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, making it an ideal time for you to understand this serious form of cancer that according to the CDC, accounts for 3% of all cancers in women and causes more deaths each year than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
Unlike many other cancer types, ovarian cancer has no preventative screening. While you can have Pap smears to check for cervical cancer and mammograms to help detect breast cancer, there is currently no method to regularly screen for ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, the majority of ovarian cancer cases are discovered in the later stages when the disease is least treatable. These facts mean that being aware of your ovarian cancer risk factors and following with your OB-GYN or primary care physician are crucial measures.
Risk Factors for Developing Ovarian Cancer
While there is no clear cause of ovarian cancer, there are certain factors that can impact your risk, including:
Your chances of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer increase with age. Although even young women can get ovarian cancer, women older than 60 are at the highest risk.
Your ovaries are the organs that produce eggs, so they are directly tied to fertility. Having children lowers your risk of ovarian cancer, and your risk drops with each pregnancy. Women who have never had children have more likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.
Your risk of ovarian cancer is greater than average if you have a close blood relation who has had ovarian cancer.
Certain Genetic Factors
The presence of certain genes is responsible for a minority of ovarian cancer cases. Specifically, the breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, influence your risk of ovarian as well as breast cancer. If you are positive for these genes, you have an increased ovarian cancer risk. Also, Lynch syndrome, a hereditary syndrome, increases your risk of ovarian and other types of cancer.
It is important to realize that these risk factors do not dictate that you will develop ovarian cancer. Even if you have all of the risk factors above, you may never develop the disease. However, you should be aware of your risk factors and communicate them to your OB-GYN and other doctors so that they can provide you with the best possible care.
Ovarian Cancer Prevention
According to the American Cancer Society, using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) decreases the risk of developing ovarian cancer for average risk women and BRCA mutation carriers, especially among women who use them for several years. In fact, for women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years, they have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with women who never used them. However, taking birth control pills can also have other effects on a woman’s body and so if you are considering taking these drugs, it’s best to talk through the possible risks and benefits with your medical provider.
Gynecologic surgery, such as a tubal ligation or a hysterectomy, may also reduce the chance of developing certain types of ovarian cancer. Still, experts agree that these operations should only be done for valid medical reasons.
Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
You may have heard that one of the reasons that ovarian cancer is so deadly is that it rarely causes noticeable symptoms in its early stages, meaning it can go on undetected until it has developed further into a later stage in which it has spread to the pelvis and abdomen. Even in the later stages when symptoms are more apparent, they can easily be mistaken for non-threatening scenarios. As a result, many women do not realize the danger and that’s why ovarian cancer is often referred to as a silent killer.
If you notice any of the symptoms below, bring them to the attention of your doctor, especially if the symptoms are persistent or recur frequently:
• Abdominal discomfort or even pain, including bloating, feelings of being too full, and cramping
• Persistent fatigue
• Appetite loss
• Change in menstruation
• Pain during sexual intercourse
• Gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, constipation, or diarrhea
• Pressure, swelling, or pain in the lower pelvis and/or back
Types of Ovarian Cancer
There are three major types of ovarian cancer. Epithelial ovarian cancer arises from the thin “envelope” on the outer surface of the ovaries and represents the vast majority of ovarian cancers. A small fraction of ovarian cancer cases is germ cell ovarian cancer. This type originates in the ovarian cells that produce ova (eggs). Finally, a very tiny percentage of ovarian cancers are stromal cell cancers. This disease begins in the connective tissue of the ovaries.
Unfortunately, treatment options for ovarian cancer are more limited than if treating other types of cancer and once it’s in the late stage, it becomes extremely difficult to treat. If ovarian cancer is diagnosed in its early stage, then it can more successfully be treated with the removal of the ovaries and nearby reproductive organs, then combined with chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Given the treatment success rate at the different stages, early detection is critical.
What You Can Do
Knowing how critical early detection is, spreading awareness and education about ovarian cancer needs is a priority, especially this month. You can help yourself and others by talking about the risk factors and symptoms and certainly talking with your healthcare provider who knows your family history and other risk factors. If you do have a family history for ovarian cancer, make it a priority this month to speak with your doctor to get their recommendations on next steps, which may possibly include genetic testing or other diagnostics.
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