Each year, approximately 21,980 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the U.S. Even though it accounts for only 3 percent of all cancers in women, it’s the fifth leading cause of cancer death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What makes this disease even more alarming is the lack of obvious early signs and symptoms, coupled with the knowledge that it has been shown to be most effectively treated when found early.
Experts acknowledge that the disease is hard to detect in its early stages because of the ambiguous symptoms. “There’s no reliable screening test; most symptoms appear at advanced stages,” says Jennifer Lesko, MD, Assistant Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at George Washington University.
- Abdominal bloating that doesn’t go away
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Frequency of urination (urgency)
- Low back pain (doesn’t present in all patients)
- Tightness of clothing around your waist (due to increased abdominal girth)
- Frequent lack of energy
In addition to these signs, it’s important for a woman to truly ‘know’ her body and family history and to discuss this with her physician, says Evelyn Minaya, MD, a board certified OB/GYN practicing in New Jersey.
“When you go to your doctor and give your family history, most people only discuss immediate family,” explains Dr. Minaya. “What you really need to do is give a ‘full’ family history and go beyond just your mother and grandmother.”
Causes and Preventive Measures
There’s promising research on the horizon for not only what causes ovarian cancer (beyond genetic predispositions), but also how it can be treated, according to Dr. Minaya.
There’s been research linking endometriosis to certain types of ovarian cancers. If in fact endometriosis is a precursor to the disease, signs/symptoms may be easier to detect and treatment options could extend to preventive measures, such as prescribing those women at risk birth control pills (oral contraception).
In fact, using oral contraceptives has been found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. This extends to even those women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. With this in mind, Dr. Minaya says the preventive strike against ovarian cancer looks promising. “This research is encouraging,” she days. “Women at risk for developing the disease should be cautiously optimistic.”
The bottom line is if you have a family history of ovarian cancer or you’re a carrier of a mutated form of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, you should talk to your physician and/or gynecologist about your risks, your options, and potential preventive measures.
And if you’re experiencing persistent, unusual (to you) symptoms as outlined above, make a point to get checked out and take control of your health.
Tara Weng is formerly a medical/features producer at the NBC television affiliate in Boston, MA. She regularly contributes health/wellness and sex and relationships features to KnowMore.tv.