Ovarian cancer is sneaky. Its first symptoms are easily mistaken for common gastro-intestinal problems, and it’s hard to diagnose with tests until its middle stages. And it doesn’t really discriminate, so no one group of women is significantly more at risk than another. The best method of prevention is increasing awareness of the disease so that women are able to recognize symptoms and risk factors and seek a doctor’s advice early on.
What Is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer is a cancerous growth that originates in the ovaries. All women have two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. Ovaries produce eggs (ova), estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. More than 90% of ovarian cancers are called epithelial—arising from the surface of the ovary. Other types of ovarian cancer are called gynecologic. They might originate in the fallopian tubes or the egg cells.
Who’s at Risk?
As mentioned before, all women are at risk for ovarian cancer. Most of the time, it seems to stem from a random genetic mutation. But there are a few groups who have risk factors—an increased chance of developing the cancer. These include: women over the age of 55, women who have never been pregnant, women with a personal history of cancer, women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and women on menopausal hormone replacement therapy.
What Are the Symptoms?
Unfortunately, the early symptoms of ovarian cancer are subtle—if there are any symptoms at all. They include abdominal pressure or fullness, abdominal pain or discomfort, feeling the urge to urinate frequently, and trouble eating food or filling up very quickly.
Usually these symptoms can be attributed to less dangerous, temporary health issues. If the symptoms persist for more than a couple weeks, though, it’s time to call your doctor and schedule an appointment.
How Do Doctors Test for Ovarian Cancer?
Usually, your doctor will do a pelvic exam, an ultrasound, and a blood test. If these tests show a possibility of cancer, the doctor might recommend surgery to more thoroughly check for cancerous growths.
Eradicating cancerous growths usually requires surgery—and for ovarian cancer that’s past the first stage or so, the procedure fairly extensive. The surgeon removes both ovaries, the fallopian tubes, the uterus, proximal lymph nodes, and the omentum (a piece of fatty abdominal tissue).
After surgery, most patients also go through chemotherapy—a drug regimen designed to kill remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy is usually an exhausting process.
How Can I Prevent Developing Ovarian Cancer?
Women who take birth control pills have been shown to have a reduced risk of contracting ovarian cancer, so if you’re open to taking the pill, ask your doctor.
Because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are often mistaken for common digestive problems or minor, illnesses, the best form of prevention is education and knowledge. The more you know about ovarian cancer—and about your body, the better you’ll be able to recognize symptoms when you or a friend experiences them.
For more information, visit OvarianCancerAwareness.org.