Angelina Jolie’s mother, Bing Crosby’s first wife, and James Dean’s mother all have at least one thing in common—falling victim to ovarian cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States in 2016.
Unfortunately, in over 40 years the mortality rates for ovarian cancer haven’t been reduced. For women, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death. But women diagnosed in the early stages have much higher five-year survival rates.
Does that mean that women should get tested more often? Keep reading to find out.
What Is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer begins when cells grow out of control in the ovaries. The ovaries are the reproductive glands found in women. The cancer cells may then spread to other parts of the body, which can lead to malignant tumors.
The cause of these tumors is unknown. You may be at risk of ovarian cancer if you:
- have a family history of the disease
- have never been pregnant
- have endometriosis
- have had breast cancer
- have never used birth control
Other risk factors include early menarche (first menstrual cycle), late menopause, being over 65 years old, and being overweight or obese.
Early Screening Tests
Doctors can use three tests to try to detect ovarian cancer in its early stages:
- Pelvic exam: This test is routine in yearly gynecologic appointments. However, women at risk for ovarian cancer can ask their doctors to pay special attention to the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries.
- Transvaginal ultrasound: This test produces images of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and bladder. Doctors can examine the digital pictures for potential abnormalities, such as ovarian enlargement or masses.
- CA-125 assay: This test measures the levels of cancer antigen 125 in the blood. CA-125 is a protein that’s found when tumors are present in the body. A high level of CA-125 may indicate cancer, though doctors use other follow-up tests to confirm the results. There can be many false-positive test results with CA-125, which limits its usefulness as a screening test.
Does Early Screening Help?
So far, regular screening tests for ovarian cancer are not recommended. This is because the current tests cause too many false results. For example, a 2011 study found that women aged 55 to 74 who received advanced screening had a higher mortality rate than those who received regular care. In addition, women who weren’t screened for ovarian cancer had fewer surgeries and were less likely to experience problems.
However, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force now recommends that women with a family history of breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer get tested for BRCA gene mutations.
Steps to Reduce Your Risk
As with most cancers, a healthy lifestyle is the best way to reduce your risk. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, refraining from smoking, and taking steps to manage stress and weight can all help you stay cancer-free.
Being informed can help you detect possible symptoms early. Ovarian cancer symptoms are tricky, as they can mimic other health conditions. But it’s important to remember that a symptom isn’t a cancer diagnosis.
If you have a family history of the disease or you feel at risk for other reasons, you should watch for potential signs. These signs include:
- pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs
- a constant feeling of fatigue
- shortness of breath
- unusual vaginal bleeding (heavy periods or post-menopausal bleeding)
- a swollen or bloated abdomen that persists
- urinating more often than normal
All women may experience these symptoms at one time or another. But if they last for more than a week or two, you should make an appointment with your doctor.
The good news is that the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 46 percent. Remember to discuss your personal case with your doctor regarding any procedure or treatment plan.