Approximately 22,000 women will receive a new ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2012, and roughly 15,000 women will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Ovarian cancer ranks as only the ninth most common form of cancer in women, but ranks as the fifth leading cause of death. One of the reasons ovarian cancer has such a disproportionately high mortality rate is the fact that the disease generally develops in older women. Just about half of all women diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 60. Fortunately, thanks to advances made in early detection and treatment, the number of women suffering from ovarian cancer has slowly declined over the last 20 years.
As with any disease, early detection is the key between an early recovery and a long battle against ovarian cancer. But what are the symptoms of ovarian cancer, how often should a woman get tested, and what risk factors determine if someone is likely to receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis? Here are a few facts that every woman should know about ovarian cancer.
Signs of the Disease
Ovarian cancer forms in the ovaries, the twin organs in the reproductive system that produce a woman’s eggs, and the hormones progesterone and estrogen. Early symptoms of the disease may include pain in the pelvis or abdomen, constant pressure or bloating in the stomach, frequent urination, and quickly feeling overly stuffed during a meal. While these are the most common symptoms for the disease, many of these same symptoms can be caused by a variety of other non-cancerous conditions. If any of these symptoms persist for longer than a couple of weeks, you need to immediately report them to your doctor.
The majority of ovarian cancer cases deal with epithelial ovarian carcinomas, malignant tumors that develop from cancerous cells found on the surface of the ovaries. Not every epithelial tumor is cancerous, however. These types of tumors are referred to as low malignant potential, or LMP, and grow at a much slower rate. LMP tumors are far less dangerous than other forms of ovarian cancer.
Known Risk Factors
While researchers currently don’t know the cause of ovarian cancer, there are several known risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing the disease. These risk factors can include:
- Family History: Women who possess a family history of ovarian cancer have a greater risk of developing the disease, especially if a close family member has already received a breast, colon, or ovarian cancer diagnosis. Researchers believe that inherited genetics account for approximately 10 percent of all ovarian cancer diagnosis. Inherited genes, such as BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, have been linked to the development of breast cancer, and women with a strong family history of cancer should consult with their physician.
- Age: Considering that women over the age of 60 have the highest risk of receiving an ovarian cancer diagnosis, it only makes sense that age accounts for the biggest risk factor of the disease. Ovarian cancer is most likely to develop in women after they have undergone menopause, and women who have undergone postmenopausal hormone therapy could have a higher risk of developing the disease. However, studies seem to suggest the strongest link between ovarian cancer and hormone therapy exists in women who have taken estrogen without progesterone for between five and 10 years. Currently researchers don’t know whether women who take estrogen and progesterone also have an increased risk of developing the disease.
- Obesity: Women who suffer from obesity have a greater risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who maintain a healthier weight. Obese women also have a higher mortality rate from ovarian cancer when compared to non-obese women. The heaviest women also seem to possess the highest risk.
Currently there are two ways to screen for ovarian cancer prior to the disease showing up on routine gynecological exams or before symptoms begin to manifest. The first is a blood test that looks for elevated levels of CA-125, a protein that acts as a signpost of the disease. The second is an ultrasound of the ovaries. Sadly, neither of these techniques has proved to save the lives of women who have an average risk of developing the disease. Because of a lack of supportive evidence, these types of screening methods are usually reserved for women with a high risk of the disease.
Imaging exams, like CT scans or ultrasounds, can only help to show a mass on the ovaries. However, these types of scans can’t determine whether a mass is cancerous. In cases where cancer is suspected, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the suspect mass. A biopsy of the mass will be sent off for further testing to determine any cancerous properties.
Timothy Lemke blogs about women’s health issues for Dr. Jared Thompson, the dentist Aloha, OR residents trust for gentle dental care.