Oak Hills Womens Center

Ovarian Cancer: Are you at risk?

Dr. Carolyn's Corner


Are you at risk for developing ovarian cancer? If you are a female, the answer to this question is YES, no matter what your age, ethnicity, or current state of health. This disease can strike any female, and we should all be concerned. September has been designated as National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, in a widespread effort to educate women about the risk factors, warning signs, and actions we should be taking.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women aged 35-74. Statistics show that 1 in 70 women will develop ovarian cancer in her lifetime. Unfortunately, it is often described as a “silent killer”, since there are often no early symptoms or warning signs and the diagnosis most commonly is made when the disease is in late stages. Fewer than 20% of cases are found in early stages.

Unlike for breast and cervical cancer, there are no reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer, so it is particularly important for us to pay attention to risk factors and symptoms. Women who have a greater risk than the general population include:

  1. family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  2. personal history of cancer
  3. age >35
  4. infertility or never having been pregnant

Symptoms tend to be vague and are often ignored or blamed on other common ailments. However, if the following are persistent, they should NEVER be ignored by a woman or her physician:

  1. bloating
  2. pelvic or abdominal pain
  3. early satiety, or feeling full quickly
  4. urinary urgency and frequency
  5. GI symptoms such as nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, diarrhea
  6. extreme fatigue
  7. shortness of breath
  8. backaches
  9. painful sex

The diagnosis is made by the patient's history, thorough physical exam, including pelvic and rectal exam, imaging studies such as ultrasound, CT, and MRI, and blood tests of a tumor marker, CA 125. Even though many women request a CA 125 test be run at the time of their annual exams, this protein tumor marker is not an accepted screening test. Although most ovarian cancers (about 80%) will produce elevated blood levels of CA 125, many benign conditions will do the same. This means that the test alone is not specific for ovarian cancer and therefore should be used only in conjunction with other studies to arrive at the correct diagnosis and to monitor response to treatment of known cases of ovarian cancer.

There are no known preventions for ovarian cancer, but some things are known to reduce the risk:

  1. Oral contraceptive use for more than 3 years
  2. Pregnancy and breast feeding
  3. Tubal ligation
  4. Hysterectomy (but not done solely for the purpose of preventing ovarian cancer) 5) Prophylactic oophorectomy for certain high risk groups of women

The most important thing for us is TO BE AWARE OF AND NOT IGNORE SYMPTOMS and to keep up to date with our annual exams. Remember, the exam is more than just a pap smear. It could save lives!

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