On each side of the uterus, there is a little almond-shaped organ that stores eggs and manufactures female hormones – these are your ovaries. When cancerous cells are found near, inside, or on the outer layer of these small organs, it leads to a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
How common is ovarian cancer? According to the National Cancer Institute’s statistics, approximately one in every 79 women will develop the disease during her lifetime. Between the ages of 35-74, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of deaths related to cancer, namely because the majority of cases are diagnosed when the disease has already progressed to a later stage. However, when a woman is diagnosed and treated in the earliest stages of the disease, there is a five-year survival rate of over 90%.
As you read these numbers, you may wonder how you can take action to help prevent the development of this frightening disease? And is there a way to screen regularly for ovarian cancer to detect it as early as possible?
Symptom Awareness & Knowing Your Risk Factors
Unfortunately, there is no reliable routine screening for ovarian cancer. (No, a Pap smear cannot detect ovarian cancer!) Also, ovarian cancer does not typically present clear and definite symptoms at the early stages, which can make detection of this disease tricky. Which brings us back to the question – how can you help yourself?
- Know the Possible Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
Most of the early signs of ovarian cancer mimic common digestive problems that are typically mistaken for a simple stomach ache. However, the American Cancer Society recommends that you play it safe by consulting your gynecologist for a pelvic exam if any of these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks:
- Indigestion, nausea, or bloating
- Appetite changes, such as feeling full more quickly
- Pressure in the pelvis, lower back, or thighs
- Pain during sex
- An increase in frequency or urgency to urinate
- Constipation, or other changes in bowel movements
- Changes in menstruation and/or new pain associated with your period
- Low energy or constant fatigue
2. Know Your Risk Factors for Ovarian Cancer
While the precise causes for ovarian cancer are not known, there are several risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing the disease. If you have any of the following, consult your doctor. Sometimes, referral to a genetic counselor may also be recommended.
- Family history – a history of ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, or breast cancer in the family
- Age – most cases occur after menopause and in women over age 63
- Late or no pregnancies – women who are older than 35 when they have their first full-term pregnancy or who never carried a pregnancy to term
- Fertility treatment – IVF has been associated with certain types of ovarian tumors
- Hormone therapy – using estrogens (without progesterone) after menopause
- Having had breast cancer – especially in women with a family history of breast cancer
- Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome – caused by particular gene mutations
- Specific syndromes – Cowden disease, Lynch syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, MUTYH-associated polyposis
Many more risk factors have demonstrated potential effects on the development of ovarian cancer; read a detailed list prepared by the American Cancer Society.
Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer
Listen to your body! If you notice any early symptoms, visit your doctor for an evaluation. Your gynecologist may be able to feel a mass during a pelvic exam, and then an ultrasound may be used to uncover more details about the lump. This information is critical for figuring out the next step, which could involve surgery or surveillance. A range of diagnostic tests and tools, such as a PET/CT scan, MRI, and lab tests, can assess ovarian cancer – although at present, the only foolproof way to confirm ovarian cancer is with a biopsy. But research into new diagnostics is ongoing and encouraging.
Ovarian Cancer Treatment
Depending upon your individual test results (such as stage of the cancer), your oncology specialists will design a personalized treatment plan. Therapies to treat ovarian cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, complementary therapies, and targeted therapy, along with specialized fertility preservation.
New, cutting-edge treatments and clinical trials are also available, such as TIL (Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes) immunotherapy – now offered by Sheba Medical Center in Israel and available to patients worldwide through Sheba’s International Medical Tourism Division. This innovative treatment reprograms your own white blood cells to attack your cancer cells. TIL immunotherapy has shown great promise treating patients with ovarian cancer that hasn’t responded to the conventional therapies.
Remember- the best way you can protect yourself against the development of ovarian cancer is to pay attention to your body and your individual risk factors, and consult your doctor about any concerns!