You’ve probably heard that ovarian cancer is a “silent killer,” but there are often early warning signs.
Unfortunately, some of the earliest symptoms are easy for both people with cancer and their doctors to dismiss.
Europe, especially the regions in Eastern and Northern Europe have the highest rate of women suffering from ovarian cancer. In 2012, there were 65 000 patients, so the disease became the sixth most common cancer in women in Europe. About 250,000 women develop cancer every year.
Only 50% of the women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive five years after the initial diagnosis. This is because the cancer is in an advanced stage. With early detection, however, this percent can increase up to 95%.
Women can develop ovarian cancer at any age, but it is more likely to occur in women who are 50 or older. More than half of the cases are women at the age of 65 and older. Industrialized countries have the highest incidence of ovarian cancer. Women with white skin are at a slightly higher risk; African-American and Asian women are at lower risk.
The risk of developing the disease increases with the age. Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer in American women and the second most common gynecological cancer. That is 4% of all cases of cancer in women. However, the death rate for ovarian cancer is higher than for any other cancer in women, because it is not early detected.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer can be difficult to recognize, particularly in its early stages.
This is because early-stage ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms. Advanced-stage ovarian cancer may cause few and nonspecific symptoms that are often mistaken for more common benign conditions, such as constipation or irritable bowel.
Signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
These symptoms are also commonly caused by benign (non-cancerous) diseases and by cancers of other organs. When they are caused by ovarian cancer, they tend to be persistent and represent a change from normal − for example, they occur more often or are more severe. If a woman has these symptoms more than 12 times a month, she should see her doctor, preferably a gynecologist.
Others symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Menstrual changes
- Abdominal swelling with weight loss
However, these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions, and most of them occur just about as often in women who don’t have ovarian cancer.
If you have these types of symptoms, try keeping a diary to record how many of these symptoms you have over a longer period. Bear in mind that ovarian cancer is rare in women under 40 years of age.
Who’s at Risk?
The exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, but certain factors can put you at a greater risk. These include:
- a family history of ovarian cancer
- genetic mutation of genes associated with ovarian cancer, including BRCA1 or BRCA2
- personal history of breast, uterine, or colon cancer
- Your risk of ovarian cancer increases with age. Having any of these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll get ovarian cancer, and you can have none of these risk factors and still be diagnosed.
How Ovarian Cancer Is Diagnosed
Pelvic exams help doctors discover irregularities, but small ovarian tumors are very difficult to feel. As the tumor grows, it presses against the bladder and rectum. Your doctor may be able to detect irregularities during a rectovaginal pelvic examination.
A transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) is a type of imaging test that uses sound waves to detect tumors in the reproductive organs, including the ovaries. However, it can’t determine if tumors cancerous or not.
A test called the CA-125 measures the amount of cancer antigen 125 in your blood. The test is useful in assessing treatment for ovarian cancer as well as other reproductive organ cancers, but it’s imperfect. Other conditions besides ovarian cancer can affect levels of CA-125 in the blood. These include menstruation, uterine fibroids, and cancer of the uterus.
Your doctor will recommend a biopsy if you have an ovarian tumor. During this procedure, they’ll analyze a small tissue sample under a microscope. A biopsy is the only way ovarian cancer can be confirmed.
How Ovarian Cancer Is Treated
Treatment depends on how far cancer has spread. You’ll most likely need surgery to remove cancerous tumors. Radiation is another treatment option that is used to target tumors. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells throughout your body.
Your individual outlook depends on a variety of factors, including the stage of cancer at diagnosis, your overall health, and how well you respond to treatment.
• Smear tests don’t detect ovarian cancer.
• If the blood test and scan didn’t pick up on anything but you’re still getting symptoms, go back to your GP.
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