Fighting ovarian cancer

Science has made tremendous progress battling certain cancers and other potentially deadly diseases. But one of the best advances, arguably, is how much more informed we are today about chronic and life-threatening illnesses, and our willingness to learn the factors — such as family history, nutrition and life-style choices — that can help reduce or prolong our lives.

One insidious disease that continues to plague women is ovarian cancer, and September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. While medical researchers still don’t know how to prevent ovarian cancer, they do know a great deal more about this disease, and now have a variety of screening methods for detecting it earlier, when there’s a better chance to stem its advance.

Most importantly, this disease must be taken seriously. Each year in the United States, about 20,000 women get ovarian cancer and about 14,500 die from it. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system, but it accounts for only about three percent of all cancers in women.

What women — and men — need to know

Women have two ovaries that are located in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. The ovaries make female hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) and produce eggs. When cancer starts in either ovary, it is called ovarian cancer.

Fallopian tube cancer (which starts in the fallopian tube) and primary peritoneal cancer (which starts in the lining that supports the abdomen) are very similar to ovarian cancer. Many of the signs and symptoms are the same, and doctors treat these cancers in the same way.

All women are at risk for ovarian cancer, but older women are more likely to get the disease than younger women. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40 years of age, with the greatest number of cases occurring in women aged 60 years or older. A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 73. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about one in 100.

Ovarian cancer is more common in white women than African-American women. Fortunately, through earlier detection and more advanced treatments, the rate at which women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been slowly falling over the past 20 years. However, that’s no reason to relax.

Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, ovarian cancer is difficult to treat and is often fatal. Like most illnesses, the earlier it’s detected, the better your chances for leading a normal and longer life.

Physicians diagnose ovarian cancer through pelvic examinations, the use of ultrasound scanning or by taking small tissue samples. The type of ovarian cancer someone has helps determine prognosis and treatment options.

Ovarian cancer signs and symptoms

Researchers are studying ways to improve ovarian cancer treatment and looking into ways to detect ovarian cancer at an earlier stage — when a cure is more likely. Symptoms of ovarian cancer, however, are not specific to the disease, and they often mimic those of many other more-common conditions, including digestive problems.

Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:

  • Abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating
  • Pelvic discomfort or pain
  • Persistent indigestion, gas or nausea
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
  • Changes in bladder habits, including a frequent need to urinate
  • Loss of appetite or quickly feeling full
  • Increased abdominal girth or clothes fitting tighter around your waist
  • A persistent lack of energy
  • Low back pain

Make an appointment with your doctor if you or someone you know has any signs or symptoms that worry you. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk of ovarian cancer. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor to discuss testing for certain gene mutations that increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Certain factors may increase your risk of ovarian cancer. Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean that you’re sure to develop ovarian cancer, but your risk may be higher than that of the average woman. These risk factors include:

  • Inherited gene mutations, which can often be determined through genetic testing.
  • Family history of ovarian cancer.If women in your family have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you have an increased risk of the disease.
  • A previous cancer diagnosis.If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer of the breast, colon, rectum or uterus, your risk of ovarian cancer is increased.
  • Increasing age.Your risk of ovarian cancer increases as you age. Ovarian cancer most often develops after menopause, though it can occur at any age.
  • Never having been pregnant.Women who have never been pregnant have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Overall, the best advice is to talk with your physician about risks and to determine appropriate testing. Again, early detection is critical to increased survival, so remain diligent and encourage other women at risk to do the same!

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