Often referred to as a “silent killer,” ovarian cancer is one of the most dangerous diseases a woman can have. One in 78 women is at risk of developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime, and of those diagnosed, 60 to 70 percent are found in the advanced stages, according to the American Cancer Society. Dr. Blair Smith, MD gynecologic oncologist with Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, gives the lowdown on what to look for in the early stages of ovarian cancer.
“Unfortunately, a lot of [ovarian cancer] symptoms are very common symptoms that women have on a regular basis,” Smith says. The most common symptoms are bloating, abdominal pain, pelvic pain, nausea, difficulty eating, feeling full quickly and urgency to use the bathroom. Smith notes that due to the commonality of these problems, they may be overlooked, which results in women being diagnosed when their cancer is more advanced.
Less common symptoms that could also point to ovarian cancer include heartburn, back pain, pain during intercourse, constipation, menstrual irregularity, fatigue and unintentional weight loss. These symptoms will generally last more than two weeks and won’t improve even when health changes are made.
Factors such as race and origin can affect your chances of developing ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, caucasians and people of Eastern European descent rank highest in ovarian cancer risk, whereas those of Asian descent are at the lowest risk.
Most women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are age 60 or older. You also have an increased risk if you have never been pregnant or had a delayed pregnancy (after 35 years old). The most prominent risk factor, however, is a family history of inherited cancer syndromes. If breast or ovarian cancer runs in your family, be sure to get tested for a BRCA gene mutation.
Smith stresses the importance of pelvic exams in women over 18 and rectovaginal exams in women over 35. However, there is no steady screening process, like mammograms, to catch issues early on.
“Unfortunately, there’s no consistently reliable screening test to diagnose ovarian cancer,” Smith says, emphasizing that routine exams are the best system — especially if you do start to notice symptoms. “Kind of like looking in your mouth at the dentist, it’s important to look in your vagina, as well.”
Lower Your Risk
Some of the best preventative measures include using the birth control pill (a woman on the pill for more than five years reduces her lifetime risk of ovarian cancer by 50 percent), IUDs and tubal ligation. Smith urges the importance of eating a nutritious diet for overall health but notes that one diet has not proven more effective in preventing ovarian cancer over others.