Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States. It also accounts for 1 in 20 cancer-related deaths. Women who have it are usually diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 64.
Barriers to Early Diagnosis The ovaries are two small organs located near the uterus. Unlike cervical cancer, which is detected with a pap test, there is no simple or reliable screening test for ovarian cancer. In addition, its signs and symptoms are often ignored in the early stages. For this reason, most diagnoses occur in the later stages, when treatment is less likely to be successful.
Signs and Symptoms It’s important for women to be aware of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. These include:
Pelvic or abdominal pain or pressure
Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
Feeling the need to urinate frequently or often
Vaginal bleeding (especially for women in menopause) or an abnormal vaginal discharge
When abnormal vaginal bleeding occurs, a healthcare provider should be consulted immediately. A provider should also be consulted if one or more of the other symptoms persists for more than two weeks.
Diagnosis There is no screening test for ovarian cancer. Aids to diagnosing it include:
A vaginal exam
A vaginal ultrasound known as transvaginal sonography
The CA-125 blood test, which detects elevated levels of a protein that may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer cells.
Unfortunately, these tests are not always reliable. If they indicate the possibility of ovarian cancer, however, a CT scan can be conducted. The only way to conclusively diagnose ovarian cancer is by examining a sample of tumor tissue taken during a biopsy.
Factors that are associated with an increased risk of getting ovarian cancer, include:
Being middle-aged or older
Having a close female relative, on either parent’s side, who has had ovarian cancer
Having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation.
Having already had cancer of the breast, colon or uterus
Being of Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background
Never having given birth or having had difficulties becoming pregnant.
Taking estrogen without progesterone for 10 years or longer
Listen to Your Body The more familiar a woman is with her own body, the more likely she is to recognize changes that could indicate the presence of ovarian cancer. Women who experience any of the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer should take these changes seriously and seek medical attention.