Known as the “silent killer,” ovarian cancer is known as the deadliest gynecologic cancer. More than 21,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and approximately 15,000 women die from the disease in the U.S. each year. What’s worse is that death rates for ovarian cancer have not improved in the last three decades. This is because unlike other cancers that effect women—breast cancer and cervical cancer, for example—ovarian cancer is difficult to detect until it has spread beyond the ovaries.
The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 46%. This is drastically lower than the five-year survival rate for breast cancer (89%) and for cervical cancer (71%).
Ovarian cancer refers to malignant cells that grow in the ovaries and can spread to other parts of the body via the pelvic and abdominal organs or through the bloodstream and lymph nodes. There are three main types of ovarian cancer:
Epithelial tumors: This type accounts for approximately 90% of ovarian cancer cases. Epithelial tumors grow in the epithelium, the tissues covering the ovaries. This type of ovarian cancer is most common in postmenopausal women.
Germ cell tumors: A much less common type of ovarian cancer. The tumors begin in the ovarian cells that form eggs. Women in their early 20s are among the most commonly diagnosed.
Stromal tumors: Also a much less common type of ovarian cancer. Tumors form in the connective tissue cells that produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose because the early symptoms are often nonspecific and similar to digestive or bladder disorders. What makes ovarian cancer different in the detection phase, however, is that symptoms persist and get worse, whereas symptoms of digestive disorders tend to vary in intensity. Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include:
- Abdominal pressure, swelling, or bloating
- Frequent urination, often with great urgency
- Abdominal discomfort or pain
- Indigestion, gas, or nausea
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits, including constipation and frequent urination
- Loss of appetite
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Lack of energy
- Changes in menstrual cycles
- Pain in the lower back
Although ovarian cancer only accounts for 3% of cancers among women, you may have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer if you have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, an inherited mutation in one of two of the “breast cancer” genes (most common in Ashkenazi Jews), are postmenopausal, or are infertile or obese.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect but the most common methods include pelvic examinations, during which a doctor can detect growths on the ovaries, ultrasounds, and a specific blood test called the CA 125. If diagnosis is confirmed, most victims of ovarian cancer will require having their ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus—as well as effected lymph nodes and abdominal tissue—removed followed by chemotherapy.
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of ovarian cancer—symptoms that are persistent and are getting worse over a period of several weeks—talk to your doctor. Write down the symptoms you are experiencing and any relevant personal information, including family history, medications you take, and any major life changes.
There are a lot of resources online for more information on ovarian cancer and support systems. Click on the links below: