September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month—a good time to remind you of some important information to keep you aware and prepared. Did you know:
Unfortunately there are very few symptoms in the early stages of this disease, which is why ovarian cancer is often labeled a ‘silent killer.’ More troubling is that late stage symptoms like bloating/swelling, weight loss, pelvic discomfort, frequent urination, constipation, or IBS are easily attributed to less serious issues, making it harder to detect. Lack of detection can lead to cancerous cells replicating in abdominal or pelvic region, and recovery is not common in the later stages of the disease. This is why awareness, education, and communication with your doctor are your best defense.
As with other forms of cancer, what causes its appearance isn’t abundantly clear; however, certain commonalities have appeared in those affected. Throughout years of study and information sharing across clinical lines, experts agree that certain factors may increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer cells, including:
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all risk factors, but merely represents an overview of the leading causes as we understand them today. A generally healthy diet and lifestyle along with ongoing communication with your OB/GYN is your best first step, and the above risk areas should help you form a framework for that conversation.
We’ve established that this disease is difficult to detect, especially in the early stages, but that is not to say you are without options. Your own awareness is your first and best line of defense, and any persistent increase in abdominal size/bloating, problems eating/feeling full, or pelvic or abdominal pain are cause for concern and should prompt a visit to your doctor. Developed using the Goff Symptom Index as a framework to identify potential risks, the questionnaire below helps shape the consideration of your own risk and inform the conversation with your doctor:
If you or your doctor believe that you are at risk, the first steps will be to employ a complete pelvic examination, followed by various imaging tests (Transvaginal Sonography) and blood tests to determine the presence of cancer antigens. Further, your doctor may perform an Ova1®plus ovarian cancer risk assessment to determine your level of risk for malignancy and expedite appropriate treatment.
These initial steps will help to better define the situation and help determine what next steps may be necessary, such as exploratory surgery, to determine the presence of cancerous cells or determine what stage of the disease the patient is facing.
The good news is that, by reading this, you are already taking preliminary steps to protect yourself by staying informed and connected to those who can help! If the disease does appear and is caught in the very early stages, then surgical options are typically employed to remove the ovaries and nearby reproductive organs at risk. Surgical options are then followed by a regiment of chemotherapy to stifle the growth of any remaining cancerous cells by targeting the blood vessels which support the growth of a tumor. When caught early (stage 1), long-term survival rates for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer approach 95%, so informed vigilance is key.
The hard-to-detect nature of the disease means there’s not a 100% guaranteed path to prevention, and while you many not be able to control your age, family history, or genetic inheritance, there is hope! Studies have shown that certain factors such as the regular use of oral contraceptives, pregnancy, and breastfeeding can significantly lower the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Further, avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and maintaining an active lifestyle with a healthy diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables and limits the intake of processed foods not only promotes your overall health, but are increasingly being included as a part of prescribed preventative approaches.
The one thing which all studies and clinicians can agree on is that your best chance at avoiding or surviving this disease is informed awareness combined with regular annual visits to your OB/GYN. Through your own vigilance and your doctor’s help, your chances of catching and defeating ovarian or pelvic cancer at an early stage increase dramatically.