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September, Ovarian Cancer Month: The Whispering Disease

According to the American Cancer Society, in the United States this year, it is estimated about 21,750 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and about 13,940 women will die from the disease. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer related deaths in women. Approximately 1 in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her lifetime and the chance of dying from this cancer is about 1 in 108. Older women are at a higher risk–approximately half the women diagnosed are 63 years and older. It is seen more in white women than African-American women. With routine gynecological care, the rate of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been slowly decreasing over the past 20 years.

What is Ovarian Cancer?
With September being ovarian cancer awareness month, one needs to wonder if they are at risk for developing this cancer. Ovarian cancer can affect one or both ovaries, develop on the surface, or inside the ovary. Unfortunately, it often goes undetected because of a lack of symptoms and then progresses to later stages. This is the reason it is the number one cause of deaths from gynecological cancer in the United States.

The most common symptoms associated with ovarian cancer (if present more than 12 days per month) are bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, feeling full too quickly, or urinary frequency or urgency. Some women who are postmenopausal can develop vaginal bleeding. Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have ovarian cancer. However, discussing these concerns with your gynecology provider is critical for early detection.

Risk Factors
There is no specific cause for ovarian cancer but certain factors may increase your risk. These factors include age (women over the age of 63 are more likely to develop it); genetics (presence of specific gene mutations); family history of ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancers; and previous medical conditions in the reproductive system. Additionally, the use of fertility treatments, use of prolonged postmenopausal estrogen hormone replacement therapy, and the lack of pregnancy have also been shown to increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Screening and Treatment
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early, 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis. During the pelvic exam with your gynecologist or nurse practitioner, your reproductive organs are evaluated and any inconsistencies in their size, shape, and/or consistency are noted. A pelvic exam is useful because it can identify some reproductive cancers at an early stage.

Screening tests can be useful to detect certain diseases and cancers especially in those who do not have symptoms; i.e. a mammogram for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colon cancer, or a pap-smear for cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there are no routine screening tests available for ovarian cancer for the general population. However, if a patient is high risk or having symptoms related to ovarian cancer, a gynecological provider may perform a trans-vaginal ultrasound and/or a CA-125 cancer marker blood test in addition to a complete pelvic exam.

Treatment for women with ovarian cancer is surgery with a hysterectomy where the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes are removed. In advanced stages, lymph nodes and tissue in the pelvic and abdomen are evaluated for cancer and removed as well. Chemotherapy after surgery is recommended for most cases of ovarian cancer. This is a medication used to kill cancer cells. In some cases, chemotherapy may be used prior to having surgery. After treatment, women should have regular checkups to make certain the cancer has not returned.

Reducing Your Risks
Some risk factors related to ovarian cancer are modifiable while some are not. For women prior to menopause, taking birth control pills or shots (those containing estrogen and/or progestin) may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. The longer a woman takes these pills, the more likely the risk is reduced. For every 5 years on the pill, a woman reduces her risk by about 20%. The benefit of taking the pill needs to be balanced against other risk factors.

The best way women can reduce their risk of death related to ovarian cancer is by early detection with annual pelvic exams performed by your gynecological provider. If symptoms arise, the sooner you speak with your provider, the sooner treatment may be started.

No one deserves to suffer through the negative affect of the whispering disease: ovarian cancer. Schedule your appointment today with Windber GYN Associates for your annual pelvic exam. For additional resources on ovarian cancer, check out these websites https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer or https://www.acog.org/patient-resources/faqs/gynecologic-problems/ovarian-cancer.

About Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber
Founded in 1906, Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber (CSSMCW) is an independent, non-profit acute care hospital in northern Somerset County, bordering Cambria County. The 54-bed hospital shares a campus and collaborates with Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber (CSSIMMW), a private, non-profit biomedical research center. With more than 450 employees, CSSMCW is the fourth largest employer in Somerset County. CSSMCW’s mission is to provide excellence in personalized, quality health care services through innovation, research and education in response to community needs. For more information visit www.windbercare.org.

Written by: Windber GYN Associates
Dr. Greg Whorral, Jennifer Anto, CRNP, Rebecca Kebberly, CRNP