Ovarian Cancer—Another Reason to Not Skip That Yearly Exam
This year, 22,440 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the American Cancer Society says. Even more alarming, about 14,080 women will die from ovarian cancer this year.
Ovarian cancer is fifth in all cancer deaths among women, which is more deaths than any other female reproductive system cancer.
“Women with a genetic predisposition to ovarian cancer are most at risk—and one in 90 women in general,” says Sheri Puffer, M.D., OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, adding that risk increases as women become post-menopausal.
“Certainly a family history puts a woman at highest risk,” Heather Bartos, M.D., OB/GYN and chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton, agrees. “Genetic testing (like Angelina Jolie did) is available readily now, and is usually covered by insurance with the right family history.”
The ACS says that nearly half of all diagnoses are of women age 63 or older, and it’s more common in white women than African American women.
“Ovarian cancer is rare in women younger than 40,” the ACS says. “Most ovarian cancers develop after menopause.”
Studies also seem to indicate that obesity can be a factor as well, with women who have a body mass index higher than 30 having an elevated risk.
“Women who have been pregnant and carried it to term before age 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who have not,” the ACS also explains. “The risk goes down with each full-term pregnancy. Women who have their first full-term pregnancy after age 35 or who never carried a pregnancy to term have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.”
Breastfeeding may lower the risk even further, as well as taking contraception or having a tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) or a hysterectomy.
“We now ask [for that information] as part of the Well Woman exam to identify patients who might be at risk,” Bartos says. “The average lifetime risk is one in 70 (remember that breast cancer is one in eight), but with a family history and positive genetic screening that number jumps to a nearly 70 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.”
“It’s extremely important to see your gynecologist yearly for a checkup,” Puffer says. “Even if your pap smear is not due, we can do a pelvic exam and have a discussion about your state of health.
“Nothing has been proven to prevent ovarian cancer, but getting yearly exams can help catch it,” she adds.
Bartos says that unfortunately, most women get diagnosed with ovarian cancer when it’s too late, meaning it’s at a late stage.
“At that point, curing is much more difficult,” she says. “The 5-year survival rate for stage 4 cancer is less than 10 percent.”
Those statistics, she says, plus the typically long relationship women have had with their gynecologist, make discussions about reproductive health important.
“Most women ONLY see their gynecologist—we are the primary care physician, the specialist, everything,” she continues. “And we often have a long history with [our] patients—we’ve often delivered their children, and have seen them since adolescence.
“So by making that one appointment each year, we can go over everything we need to and make sure you’re healthy,” she says.
And while nothing can completely prevent ovarian cancer, Bartos says a healthy lifestyle and boning up on your family’s health history is a good place to start.
“I always advocate a clean lifestyle—no smoking, healthy weight, and a vegetable-rich diet,” she says. “Don’t use talc-based products, and KNOW your family history.”
The ACS says that family history is important to assessing risk. Not only is your ovarian cancer risk increased if your mother, sister or daughter has or has had it, but the risk increases with the more relatives you have with it. It can also come from the father’s side.
And don’t just ask about ovarian cancer.
“A family history of some other types of cancer such as colorectal and breast cancer is linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer,” the ACS says.
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Feeling like you need to urinate all the time, or needing to go often
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Menstrual changes
- Abdominal swelling with weight loss
Since these symptoms can also be produced by a wide range of conditions, it’s important to see your doctor to rule out a variety of reproductive issues, including ovarian cancer.
“If a woman has these symptoms more than 12 times a month, she should see her doctor, preferably a gynecologist,” the ACS says.
“Any unusual symptoms lasting longer than a month, please get checked out by your gyno,” Bartos agrees. “There’s no reliable blood test for ovarian cancer at this time.”
Read more about the American Cancer Society’s guidelines for the prevention and early detection of ovarian cancer or search for a Texas Health OB/GYN near you to schedule a women’s wellness checkup.
Interested in learning what other screenings you should be keeping up with based upon your age? Read “Healthy, Empowered Women at Every Age.”