It’s called “the whispering cancer,” and it often goes undetected until too late.
“Ovarian cancer is a silent killer. It has few early warning signs and those can be non-specific, like bloating, indigestion, nausea or weight loss. A woman with these symptoms probably won’t think, ‘this could be ovarian cancer,'” said Jayanthi Lea, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Parkland Health & Hospital System and associate professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Although not common — there will be only about 22,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. this year, the American Cancer Society estimates — ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer in the female reproductive system. It often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, the disease is more difficult to treat and is frequently fatal.
“Unfortunately, there is currently no screening test for ovarian cancer,” Lea said. “Pap smears test for cervical cancer, but do not detect ovarian cancer.”
“Women need to be aware of changes in their bodies,” Lea said. “If a woman has pelvic pain or other symptoms associated with the disease she should ask her healthcare provider to consider ovarian cancer and see a specialist. The earlier this cancer is found, the better chance she has for survival.”
Debra Richardson, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Parkland and assistant professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at UT Southwestern, said she encourages patients to participate in clinical trials testing new drugs.
“I am inspired by working with ovarian cancer patients and watching them fight their battles,” Richardson said. “Our patients are very courageous and strong. Many of them choose to participate in clinical trials because there’s always hope that new drugs will prolong survival rates and eventually find a cure.”
“We are always trying for remission and that is definitely possible with our current treatments,” Lea added. “Every patient should shoot for that.”
Each about the size of an almond, the ovaries produce eggs (ova) as well as the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include abdominal swelling, weight loss, discomfort in the pelvis area, changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, and a frequent need to urinate.
Risk factors of the disease include having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, early onset of menstruation, late onset of menopause, a family history of ovarian cancer, advancing age — most patients are diagnosed at age 60, and no history of pregnancy. Protective factors that help lower risk include use of birth control pills, breastfeeding, tubal ligation, hysterectomy and pregnancy.
The American Cancer Society recommends that if you have symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer almost daily for more than a few weeks and they can’t be explained by other more common conditions, report them to your healthcare professional — preferably a gynecologist — right away.
(A Wellness Update is a magazine devoted to up-to-the minute information on health issues from physicians, major hospitals and clinics, universities and health care agencies across the U.S. Online at www.awellnessupdate.com.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.