Sep. 23, 2013 at 5:05 PM ET
Considered the “silent killer” because symptoms don’t usually show in the earliest, most treatable stages, ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed when the chances of survival are significantly lower. While experts continue to research diagnoses and treatment options, we must continue to stay informed on the latest risks factors, symptoms and possible ways to prevent it.
Ovarian cancer occurs in the cells on the surface of the ovaries, the twin almond-shaped organs that produce eggs. In about 5 percent of women, typically teenage girls or young women, ovarian cancer may arise in the eggs themselves (called germ cell tumors).
An estimated 22,240 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, and 14,000 die from it. Women who have a first-degree relative—mother, sister, daughter—who've had ovarian cancer are especially at risk, and the risk increases if she has one first degree and one second degree relative—a grandmother or aunt, with ovarian cancer.
Certain genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2 impact risk, but make up only 5 to 10 percent of all cases of ovarian cancer. Other contributing factors that add to risk (though not nearly as strongly as family history) include: early onset of menstruation, late menopause, never having been pregnant, infertility and endometriosis.
Studies show that taking the birth control pill reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by nearly one third. Other risk reducers include hysterectomy, removal of the ovaries and breast feeding.
When symptoms do occur, they are often subtle, so they may be overlooked because they mimic several everyday ailments. “The four main symptoms are feeling full easily, abdominal or pelvic pain, bloating and strong urgency or frequent urination,” says Debra Richardson, M.D., assistant professor, obstetrics and gynecology, at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Other signs include fatigue, upset stomach, back pain and menstrual changes. See your gynecologist if you experience any of these symptoms for more than a week.
When ovarian cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate remains at a high 92 percent. But because early-stage symptoms are typically subtle or undetectable, ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed in advanced stages, reducing the survival rate significantly.
Experts continue to search for methods for early detection, but have made little progress. A test for the biomarker CA-125—a protein that occurs in cancer cells—combined with ultrasound to spot any masses was once thought to be a promising test but proved unreliable. It lead to unnecessary biopsies and surgeries to remove ovaries because of false positives and failed to reduce the mortality from ovarian cancer. “Women should not be screened for CA-125, unless they are part of a clinical trial, are very high risk or have a mutation like the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation,” says Dr. Richardson. The best advice is to pay attention to any abdominal symptoms—no matter how subtle—and see a doctor to assess them.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.