Ovarian Cancer Awareness: Know the Symptoms
Ovarian cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women, is often referred to as a “silent killer.”
“That’s one of the challenges we face with this type of cancer,” explains Kevin Schuler MD, a gynecologic oncologist at TriState Gynecologic Oncology. “The symptoms of this cancer are very non-specific.”
Ovarian Cancer: What is it?
Two other cancers, fallopian tube cancer and primary peritoneal cancer, are typically lumped into the category of “ovarian,” because each cancer has similar symptoms, risk factors and treatment plans, Dr. Schuler says.
“The most common type of ovarian cancer develops on the outside of the surface of the ovary,” he points out. This type is called serous ovarian cancer and usually affects women over the age of 60.
Ovarian Cancer Symptoms
Symptoms for ovarian cancer are often masked as digestive issues. Because ovarian cancer grows so quickly, watching for symptoms – especially if you have a family history – is critical. If you have the following symptoms on a daily basis for more than a few weeks, you should visit your doctor:
- Early satiety (becoming full without eating much)
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
“If a woman sees her primary doctor and says ‘I’m having these symptoms,” the first thing your doctor jumps to isn’t ovarian cancer – and nine times out of 10, that’s usually right. It’s usually not ovarian cancer. It’s something with their digestive system – and that’s the challenge we face,” Dr. Schuler explains.
Screening for Ovarian Cancer
Currently, there is no effective screening method for ovarian cancer. However, about 10 percent of ovarian cancers are hereditary.
If women have a family history of ovarian cancer, they usually have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations (these genes are tumor suppressors that normally prevent cancer from developing). “In these women, we usually recommend an oophorectomy after the age of 40 or after childbearing,” Dr. Schuler says. An oophorectomy is a procedure that involves removal of both ovaries and the fallopian tubes. Having an oophorectomy has also been shown to reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer in these patients, as well.
Ovarian Cancer: How Can I Protect Myself?
“The best thing I would tell people is to be an advocate for your health. If you’re feeling things that are abnormal to you – that have been going on for [weeks or months] – talk to your doctor about them and talk about your concerns,” Dr. Schuler explains.
He also reminds patients that this disease is treatable. “With 21st-century chemotherapy, we are able to fight this disease much better than we were twenty years ago.”
If you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dr. Schuler says one of the most important next steps is being seen by a gynecologic oncologist, which is a doctor who specializes in a field of medicine that focuses specifically on cancers of the female reproductive system. From there, your doctor will talk to you about chemotherapy and surgery, and will develop a treatment plan tailored to your individualized case.