Ovarian Cancer - What You Need to Know

While it is the fifth-most common cancer among women, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other type of female reproductive organ cancer, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As with many forms of cancer, early detection of ovarian cancer increases the chances of successful treatment, with a high 5-year survival rate when the diagnosis is made before the cancer spreads outside of the ovary. The chance of early detection is complicated, however, by the fact that there is no simple and reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer before women develop signs or symptoms. But according to Robert Neff, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with the TriHealth Cancer Institute, there are ways for women to increase their chances for early detection.

Know the Signs. Listen to Your Body

“The most important thing you can do in detecting ovarian cancer is to not overlook those persistent, vague symptoms,” Dr. Neff says. “Some of the symptoms can be common and taken for granted as being natural and often associated with other, less serious causes. But you know your body. If something seems off, you should pay attention.”

Dr. Neff suggests women pay special attention to these symptoms:

  • Bloating or swelling in the abdominal area
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, or any vaginal bleeding post-menopause
  • Pain or pressure in the pelvic area, abdomen or back
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full too quickly
  • Changes in bathroom habits such as frequent urination or constipation

While there is no reliable way to screen for ovarian cancer, these symptoms can alert you and your doctor to the need for exams or imaging that can be used in detection, so Dr. Neff urges women to speak up, especially after the child-bearing years.

“While detection and treatment would ultimately require care from a specialist, your primary care provider or OB-GYN can assist you in making sure you are seeking the examination or testing you need,” he says, “so you should never second-guess whether or not you should bring it up to them, even if you are not sure if it is something they can treat.” 

Know the Risk Factors

While there is always a risk of developing specific types of cancer despite the absence of affiliated risks, Dr. Neff encourages women to know the risk factors for ovarian cancer to help them stay more in tune with their bodies in paying attention to the symptoms. Some known risk factors include:

  • A personal history of breast, uterine or colorectal cancer
  • A history of endometriosis
  • A close family history on the mother or father’s side of breast or ovarian cancer
  • A genetic mutation such as defects in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes

Knowledge is Power

According to Dr. Neff, knowing your family’s history can be very important not only by making you more aware of the risk, but in determining whether or not genetic counseling can be used in lowering your risk.

“Sometimes asking those questions of your family can provide clues that lead to a referral for genetic counseling,” he says. “This is one of the most concrete methods that we have in preventing ovarian cancer, because when we identify those genetic abnormalities that increase the risk, measures can be taken to lessen it.”

Dr. Neff says one of the options to lessen the risk where a genetic abnormality has been identified, especially for women past the child-bearing years, is surgery to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes where cancer is likely to develop.

“That knowledge is empowering even for women who are not yet past the child-bearing years,” he says. “Identifying genetic risk can alert providers to prescribe a more stringent examination schedule or encourage women be diligent in paying attention to the symptoms and increase their chance of early detection.”

Treatment of Ovarian Cancer

For women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the treatment usually begins with surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Surgery may involve the removal of both ovaries, fallopian tubes and the uterus. In cases where the cancer is in its early stages, surgery is sometimes the only treatment necessary. However, surgery is also often also combined with chemotherapy to shrink or kill the cancer tissue, including any that may have spread beyond the ovaries.

When it comes to the treatment of ovarian cancer where chemotherapy is involved, Dr. Neff once again espouses the role of genetic counseling in having a positive impact on outcomes.

“Advances in precision medicine and a greater understanding of cancer cells and their genetic make-up allow us to customize treatments for each individual patient to improve the chances of success,” he says. “I can’t stress enough, however, that nothing increases survival chances more than early detection and prevention, so knowing those risks and paying close attention to what your body is telling you is still the most important thing you can do.”

Tags Cancer , Women's Health