The American Cancer Society reports that ovarian cancer is the most deadly of all gynecological cancers. It has been nicknamed the silent killer because it typically does not come to attention until it is in a late stage. It is the sixth most common cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women. It is anticipated that nearly 16,200 women will die of ovarian cancer this year.
Previously, it was thought that there were no early symptoms. Recent research, however, has shown that women often have symptoms for three months or longer before their diagnosis. Sometimes these symptoms can be confused with those of other medical problems such as minor digestive disorders. Because there is no good screening test for ovarian cancer, it is recommended that women be aware of the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer.
If you have any of these symptoms and they do not go away, are frequent, or get worse over time, please contact your health care provider. The symptoms include bloating or an increase in abdominal size, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly. Having these symptoms does not mean that you have ovarian cancer; however, if you have these symptoms, it is a good idea to find out what is causing them.
There are different types of ovarian cancers. Most occur in women over the age of 50 though the disease can also be diagnosed in younger women. Risks for ovarian cancer include age older than 55 years; a family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer or endometrial cancer; BRCA-I or BRCA-II mutation; never having had children; and endometriosis. One-half of all cases of ovarian cancer occur in women older than 63 years. Cancer of the ovaries is less common in women younger than 40 years.
A screening test is a test that is done when there are no symptoms present. The Pap test is a good way to screen for cervical cancer, but it does not detect ovarian cancer. A pelvic exam sometimes can detect problems with the ovaries. Research is ongoing to determine accurate or reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. The CA-125, a blood test, is not universally reliable. The levels of CA-125 may be increased in women with ovarian cancer but may not be. You can also have elevation of CA-125 for other reasons than cancer such as endometriosis or fibroids, or for no reason at all.
I think we are fortunate in this area to have access to a screening program developed by the University of Kentucky. They provide a free annual ultrasonographic screening of asymptomatic women. There was a recently published paper that showed an increased detection of early stage ovarian cancer and an increased five-year disease survival rate for women with ovarian cancer. The test is free for women over 50 and in younger women with risk factors. For more information you can go to the website at ovarian screeening.info or call (800)766-8279.
When caught early, a woman’s chance of surviving five years past diagnosis of ovarian cancer is nearly 90 percent compared to 15 percent to 20 percent of women whose cancer is diagnosed in an advanced stage.
Dr. James G. Alexander is a board-certified gynecologist who is on the medical staff at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center and practices at Women’s Care for the Commonwealth, located at 333 S. Third St. He can be contacted at (859) 236-7712.