September is National Ovarian Cancer Month, a time to reflect on a type of cancer that 1 in 78 women will develop in their lifetime.
Ovarian cancer has been dubbed a silent killer since it is often detected in late stages. Because of the symptoms and a lack of early detection tests, only 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found in the early stages.
Part of what makes detecting ovarian cancer difficult in the early stages is the disease’s symptoms, which can both vary by age group and mimic other common problems.
Symptoms can be bloating, heartburn, and urinating frequency, all common for gastrointestinal issues. These symptoms are most common among older women, in their 60s and 70s. For younger women, however, symptoms include extreme pelvic pain.
“What I tell patients is that ovarian cancer can be tricky to find early,” said Janet Gallant-Wood, a gynecological oncology nurse practitioner at the Cancer Care Center at Winchester Hospital. “But if you have any symptoms that don’t go away after several days or weeks, you need to be examined.”
For many older women, Gallant-Wood explained they’re often at a point in life when some bloating, heartburn, urine frequency is expected with age. This could be one reason ovarian cancer isn’t diagnosed as quickly as other cancers. Symptoms can also be intermittent.
Knowing family history is the most important factor in preventing ovarian cancer, as this disease is likely tied to a few genes. For instance, women with a mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene have a 40 to 60 percent of developing ovarian cancer during their lifetime.
“We know to say to women it’s important not to ignore your body’s symptoms or your family history,” Gallant-Wood said. “We all feel bloated once in a while, but we’re not bloated for 30 days in a row.”
So far in 2019, there have been 22,530 new diagnosed cases of ovarian cancer and 13,980 deaths from the disease.
Healthcare professionals check for ovarian cancer in a variety of ways including pelvic exams, blood tests, ultrasounds, and CT scans.
Younger women can reduce their risk by using oral contraceptives. If a woman is pregnant and, or breastfed, her risk is also lowered.
For more information on ovarian cancer and early symptoms, speak with your health care provider.