By Jeffery Cherney, MD – Obstetrician/Gynecologist

One of the most devastating diagnoses for women is ovarian cancer, a disease that affects the female reproductive organs. This disease can strike at any age, but is most commonly identified in women 50 or older. September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. This observance was created to make sure women understand the importance of early detection and prevention.

Ovarian cancer is the second most common cancer of the female reproductive organs and the most common cause of death among women with gynecologic cancer. This poor prognosis is due, in large part, to the fact most women are diagnosed at an advanced stage. Early stages of the disease are associated with better treatment success and are potentially curable; however, attempts to develop screening programs for ovarian cancer have been unsuccessful thus far.

Each year, approximately 22,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and an estimated 14,000 die of this disease. Making these statistics even grimmer is the fact that 70 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer die within five years.

Risk Factors

All women are at risk for ovarian cancer; one in 70 women developing this disease over their lifetime. Although it is not known exactly what causes ovarian cancer, studies have shown some factors increase or decrease a women’s risk.

About 10 to 15 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have a hereditary tendency to develop the disease. The most significant risk factor for ovarian cancer is an inherited genetic mutation in one or two genes: breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) or breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2). These genes are responsible for about five to 10 percent of all ovarian cancers.

Another known genetic link to ovarian cancer is an inherited syndrome called Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (or Lynch Syndrome).

Other risks factors include: family history, increasing age, reproductive history and infertility, hormone replacement therapy and obesity.

Early Detection is Key

The goal of early detection is to reduce the death rate from ovarian cancer by diagnosing the disease while it is confined to the ovary, where the five-year survival rate is 80-90 percent. A secondary goal is detection and treatment of advanced disease as early as possible. The use of symptom recognition may have the potential to identify women with early-stage disease.

Historically, ovarian cancer is called the “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance for cure was poor. However, recent studies found symptoms occur in many women even at the early stages of the disease. Symptoms associated with ovarian cancer are often non-gynecologic and frequently non-specific. The key to early diagnosis is recognizing these signs and symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary urgency or frequency

Women with ovarian cancer report that these symptoms tend to be multiple, persistent, more severe than expected, and a change from normal for their bodies. Patients and providers may not consider the possibility of ovarian cancer when these symptoms arise. Therefore, a high index of suspicion is needed when such symptoms present in women who are older, have a family history of ovarian cancer, or who have a genetic mutation such as BRCA. Call your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if the symptoms last more than two to three weeks.

When detected early and treated promptly, women with ovarian cancer demonstrate a 90 percent survival rate. Living with cancer and undergoing treatment can be a frightening experience; Women’s Health Specialists can help patients cope during this difficult journey.

If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above we want to help! To make an appointment please call our phone number at  (920) 749-4000.