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California Area Office logoCalifornia Area Office

Myths & Facts About Ovarian Cancer

Image of Margo Kerrigan

Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

Ovarian cancer is a frightening diagnosis that often comes after the cancer has spread. As a result, it's the most deadly of the gynecological cancers.

More than 20,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and approximately 15,000 women die annually from the disease. Unfortunately, most cases are diagnosed in their later stages when the prognosis is poor. However, if diagnosed and treated early, when the cancer is confined to the ovary, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. That is why it is imperative that the early signs and symptoms of the disease are recognized, not only by women, but also by their families and the medical community.

There is currently no early detection test for ovarian cancer. Until there is a test, the key to early diagnosis is awareness. And the key to awareness is knowing the subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer and urging women to take early action and live.

Doctors are learning more about early symptoms and more effective treatments. The September issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource looks at myths and facts about ovarian cancer.

Myth: There are no early symptoms.

Fact: Many women with ovarian cancer do have early warning signs. However, common symptoms  abdominal pressure, fullness, swelling or bloating, urinary urgency and pelvic discomfort or pain  mimic those of many other conditions. It's not unusual for women with ovarian cancer to be diagnosed first with a digestive or bladder disorder. With these concerns, symptoms tend to come and go, occur in certain situations or are related to certain foods. With ovarian cancer, symptoms are likely to occur daily for weeks or months on end. Symptomatic women who have been treated for other health conditions and have not improved should schedule a follow-up visit with their doctor or seek a second opinion.

Myth: Pap tests can detect ovarian cancer.

Fact: Pap tests, also called Pap smears, are designed to detect cervical cancer, not ovarian cancer. Other exams and tests can help detect ovarian cancer but none are helpful for routine screening.

When ovarian cancer is suspected, a doctor will likely perform a pelvic exam to check for masses or growths on the ovaries. Other diagnostic tests include a CA 125 blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound. The protein CA 125 often is elevated in women with ovarian cancer. A transvaginal ultrasound is used to produce detailed images of the ovaries and other reproductive organs.

Myth: Most women with ovarian cancer have a family history of the disease.

Fact: Only 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers are inherited. The most important risk factor for ovarian cancer is the presence of inherited mutations in breast cancer genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Other risk factors are personal or family history of breast cancer, obesity, and a woman's age. Most patients with ovarian cancer are postmenopausal.

Myth: Women who have had a hysterectomy can't get ovarian cancer.

Fact: During a hysterectomy, a surgeon removes the uterus and usually the cervix. In some cases, the fallopian tubes and ovaries are removed. If one or both ovaries are left intact, ovarian cancer is possible. There's a very small chance of the disease, even when the ovaries are removed.

Myth: Ovarian cancer is always deadly.

Fact: Ovarian cancer is a serious illness, but it's not always deadly. Having a gynecologic oncologist perform the surgery increases survival rates. Combining certain chemotherapy drugs also may improve survival rates and help prevent recurrence, even in women with later stages of the disease.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect, especially, in the early stages. This is partly due to the fact that these two small, almond shaped organs are deep within the abdominal cavity, one on each side of the uterus. These are some of the potential signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often

    Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation or menstrual changes
If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your physician.

After your diagnosis, your doctor will develop your customized treatment plan. Women should always discuss their treatment options with a physician, because the best and most appropriate treatment will be different based on the stage of disease, the woman's age and the overall condition of her health.

There are three main treatment types for ovarian cancer:

1) Surgery - Surgery to remove the cancerous growth is the most common method of diagnosis and therapy for ovarian cancer. It is best performed by a qualified gynecologic oncologist.

2) Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer using chemicals (medications) that travel through the bloodstream to destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing both in and outside the ovaries. Chemotherapy is used in the majority of cases as a follow-up therapy to surgery.

3) Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors (only rarely used in the treatment of ovarian cancer in the United States).

To help a woman decide which course of treatment is best for her, the American Cancer Society uses The Profiler Treatment Option Tool for Ovarian Cancer. This tool is free and you may access it by clicking on the following link: https://www.cancer.nexcura.com/Secure/InterfaceSecure.asp?CB=271 Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

The mission of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) is to raise awareness and promote education about ovarian cancer. The Coalition is committed to improving the survival rate and quality of life for women with ovarian cancer. The NOCC provides information to assist the newly diagnosed patient, to provide hope to survivors, and to support caregivers. Its programs are possible only with the help of volunteers; committed men and women dedicated to the mission of the NOCC in communities across the country. We encourage you to join them. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of women affected by ovarian cancer. Together, we can break the silence.

Resources:

Mayo Clinic

http://www.mayoclinic.org/ Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

American Cancer Society

http://www.cancer.org/index Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
500 NE Spanish River Boulevard, Suite 8
Boca Raton, FL 33431
(888) OVARIAN (682-7426)
(561) 393-0005
nocc@ovarian.org

www.ovarian.org Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov
 

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