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Ovarian Cancer: Symptoms, Warning Signs and Risks

Over 22,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and over 14,000 will die from it. Thus, it’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms.

doctor holds ovarian cancer awareness ribbon

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month — an opportunity to increase awareness so that women reduce their risks of the disease and detect it sooner, and so that we can all encourage public education and continued research.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2018, an estimated 22,240 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and approximately 14,070 women will die from it. Women most at risk for ovarian cancer are in their 50s and 60s.

Fortunately, the rate at which women are being diagnosed has been gradually decreasing over the past two decades. Unfortunately, there is still no adequate screening test for ovarian cancer that is available, and the disease is hard to detect in its early stages when it is most treatable.

Therefore, it’s important for women to be aware of the possible warning signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer as well as to assess their reproductive history and family history of the disease. Ovarian cancer symptoms are often subtle and can be easily confused with other issues.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal discomfort
  • Frequent need to urinate

Assess Your Reproductive and Family History

Research shows a link between the number of menstrual cycles a woman has had in her lifetime and increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. A woman is at greater risk if she:

  • Began menstruating before age 12
  • Has never given birth
  • Never took birth control pills (oral contraceptives)
  • Has experienced infertility
  • First gave birth after age 30
  • Experienced menopause after 50

Also, be aware that approximately one in four women diagnosed with ovarian cancer has a strong family history of the disease, and the greatest risk factor is an inherited mutation in one of two BRCA genes. However, women who have a grandmother, mother, daughter or sister with ovarian cancer but no known genetic mutation still are at greater risk of developing the disease.  

How to Reduce Ovarian Cancer Risk

Although ovarian cancer can’t be prevented, women can talk to their healthcare providers and identify the best steps to take to help reduce risk. If ovarian cancer runs in the family, a consultation with a genetic counselor may be recommended.

Here are examples of non-surgical approaches a gynecologist may recommend:

  • Take oral contraceptives: When used for five or more years, women can cut their risk of developing ovarian cancer in half in comparison to women who have never used them.
  • Breastfeed: Breastfeeding is linked to a reduced risk of ovarian cancer, likely because a woman ovulates less often when she is pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Lose weight: Studies have discovered a link between obesity and ovarian cancer. A 2009 study in the journal Cancer found that obesity was associated with a nearly 80 percent higher risk of ovarian cancer among women between the ages of 50 to 71 who had not taken hormones after they entered menopause.
  • Reassess hormone replacement therapy: Studies show that using estrogen and progestin for five years or longer increases the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have not had a hysterectomy. If a woman has had a hysterectomy and has used estrogen for more than 10 years, her risk also increases.

A gynecologist may also recommend a surgical procedure such as:

  • Hysterectomy: Removing the uterus can decrease the risk of ovarian cancer by 33 percent.
  • Prophylactic bilateral salpingo oophorectomy: This procedure to remove the ovaries and fallopian tubes can significantly reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Tubal ligation: Having the fallopian tubes tied can reduce risk by up to 67 percent.

Hopeful News Regarding Ovarian Cancer

Finally, be aware of this good news regarding ovarian cancer: according to the American Cancer Society, familial genetic research is beginning to offer clues about how the disease develops. Eventually, this is expected to lead to new therapies that could be used to prevent or treat ovarian cancer. Learn more.

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