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Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Ovarian Cancer is one of the most deadly of women's cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates there are about 22,280 women diagnosed yearly for ovarian cancer. About 14,240 of those 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. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 100.

This cancer typically occurs in women in their fifties and sixties with the median age being 63. According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, ovarian cancer is a disease in which depending on the type and stage of the disease, malignant (cancerous) cells are found inside, near, or on the outer layer of the ovaries. An ovary is one of two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus that store eggs, or germ cells, and produce the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone.

Many women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a genetic history that may include carrying the BRCA mutation gene or have a strong family history of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is more common in women who are overweight, women who have a mother, sister or daughter with the disease, and those who have never had children. Other risk factors may include talcum powder use, a history of breast cancer, and the use of estrogen after menopause. While some studies are inconclusive, others indicate that eating a low-fat diet, being pregnant, breastfeeding, and using birth control pills prior to menopause seem to be protective factors for contracting this cancer.

Since the organs involved in this illness are so deep in the abdomen, it can be quite difficult to diagnose. A pelvic exam can sometimes reveal a problem but even the most skilled examiner may not be able to feel a tumor especially at an early stage. Symptoms can be absent or vague, including swelling or bloating of the abdomen, stomach pain or pelvic pressure, having trouble eating or feeling full quickly, or urinary urgency or frequency. Those symptoms are quite common for other diseases as well, which makes ovarian cancer diagnosis even harder. It is, therefore, important for a woman to report any changes in feeling different to her physician.

There are no screening tests for ovarian cancer that can be applied to large numbers of women, like there are for breast cancer. It is important to note that the Pap test is effective for early detection of cervical cancer, but isn’t a test for ovarian cancer. If a woman has strong risk factors for ovarian cancer, her health care provider can use a blood test, ultrasound, and CT scans to look for signs of cancer. If a tumor is found, a biopsy is performed to determine if it is cancerous or not.

Once a diagnosis is made, treatment begins fairly quickly. Surgery to remove as much of the tumor (or tumors) as possible is performed and depending how widespread the cancer is, the ovaries and uterus might be removed at the same time. A regimen of chemotherapy, sometimes followed by radiation is the next step in treatment.

According the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for all types of ovarian cancer is 45%. Women diagnosed when they are younger than 65 do better than older women. If ovarian cancer is found (and treated) before the cancer has spread outside the ovary (stages IA and IB), the 5-year relative survival rate is 92%. However, only 15% of all ovarian cancers are found at this early stage.

The key takeaway from this data is be your own best advocate. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, go for regular physicals with your primary care physician and never miss your annual gynecological exam. In addition, pay attention to your body. If you have symptoms that persist or worsen, don’t ignore them.

To learn more about ovarian cancer risks, diagnosis, and treatment options visit:

American Cancer Society at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer.html or

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition at http://www.ovarian.org.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville. If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.

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