8 Things You Should Know About Ovarian Cancer
If you know someone who’s lived through ovarian cancer, you know that the life-altering disease can come out of nowhere and impact anyone. Even if you have had no personal experience, it should not be dismissed.
In honor of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Robin Wilson-Smith, Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology Services at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township, explains the risk factors, warnings signs, outcome, and more.
1. All women are at risk.
All women are at risk for ovarian cancer, however, the strongest known risk factor is family history. Other risk factors may include older age, number of children, reproductive and hormonal changes, infertility, and obesity.
2. It is more common than you think.
In the U.S., there are 22,000 new cases and 14,000 cancer-related deaths each year from ovarian cancer. This is the second most common cause of gynecologic malignancy.
The lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer in the U.S. is 1.4 percent.
3. It may originate in the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or peritoneum (lining of the abdomen).
The majority (95 percent) of ovarian cancer originates from the lining cells of the ovaries, peritoneum (lining of abdomen), and fallopian tubes. The remaining five percent come from other cells in the ovary.
4. It does present with warning signs; mostly, pelvic or abdominal.
In the past, medical professionals believed that ovarian cancer didn’t present with symptoms until it was too late. However, new studies have shown that most women with ovarian cancer experience pelvic or abdominal symptoms prior to diagnosis. Some of the symptoms may include bloating, urinary urgency or frequency, difficulty eating or feeling full, nausea, and abdominal or pelvic pain. If you experience these symptoms persistently, you should see a physician as soon as possible.
5. It typically presents at advanced stages, making early detection difficult.
For average risk women, unfortunately, there is no effective screening method. Pap smears cannot detect ovarian cancer, and tumors detected by pelvic examination are usually already advanced. Blood tests and ultrasounds are not recommended for screening in average risk women, because they yield a high rate of false positives and may be harmful.
For high risk women, you can actively participate in risk-reducing strategies or more frequent surveillance. However, increased surveillance should be done cautiously, as there is a lack of clear benefit from these programs.
Keep in mind – the early symptoms described above are often present, and reporting these can help make a diagnosis sooner.
6. There may be ways to reduce your risk, especially for those at high risk.
If you are high risk and done having children, we recommend removal of the ovaries and tubes, which reduces the risk for both ovarian and fallopian tube cancer. For those who are not trying to conceive, a good option is oral contraception. This leaves a two percent chance of developing peritoneal cancer. Patients should still report any ovarian cancer-like symptoms to their physician.
Average risk women may elect for removal of their fallopian tubes to reduce the risk, if they are already undergoing pelvic surgery for other complications (i.e., hysterectomy, tubal ligation).
Other protective factors include: oral contraceptives, pregnancies, tubal ligation, hysterectomy, and breast-feeding.
7. Individual biological characteristics can play a huge role in prognosis.
The majority of women with early stage ovarian cancer will not face reoccurrence, however, the majority of women with advanced stage will. Age, the volume of the disease left after surgery, and the biological characteristics of the tumor play a huge role in each individual’s prognosis and response to treatment. Although the cancer can reoccur, it is still treatable.
8. If you’ve been diagnosed, there are many reasons to hold onto hope.
If you have ovarian cancer, it means you have a genetic alteration. This opens the door to other treatment options and maintenance therapies that have been shown to be helpful.
Advances in treatment are always being made. Now, we are not only using chemotherapy to treat patients, but we are also using targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormonal therapy. We also have several ongoing clinical trials that will hopefully further what we already know about treating patients with ovarian cancer.