Why Ovarian Cancer Symptoms are Easily Missed
Margaret Liotta, DO, specializes in the treatment and research of gynecological cancers, including ovarian, cervical, uterine and vulva cancers. Here she answers questions about ovarian cancer.
How common is ovarian cancer and who gets it?
Ovarian cancer makes up about 3 percent of all cancers among women. It most frequently develops after menopause, and half of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in women age 63 years or older. Women of all ages are at risk of developing ovarian cancer, but it is rare among women younger than 40. The cause of ovarian cancer is not known but age and the lifetime frequency of ovulation are the most common risk factors. Ovarian cancer most frequently develops in women 55 to 64 years old and in women who began menstruating before age 12 or reached menopause after age 50. Higher risk also is associated with:
- No history of pregnancy
- Fertility treatment
- Family history of breast, thyroid, colorectal, endometrial or ovarian cancer
- Inherited gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2
- Taking estrogen without progesterone for 10 or more years
What are the symptoms?
Ovarian cancer is called a silent disease because symptoms are absent or unrecognized. It does produce symptoms, but the symptoms may be vague and can be caused by more common,
less serious conditions. Pay attention to these symptoms:
- I get full too fast and/or my stomach aches
- I’m bloated for no reason
- I’m spotting but I’ve already gone through menopause; or I’m having heavier than usual vaginal bleeding
- I have to go to the bathroom more frequently and urgently than usual.
- I feel pain or pressure in my pelvis
- My back hurts for no clear reason
- I’ve lost weight and I wasn’t trying to
- If you have these symptoms for more than two weeks and they are unusual for you, talk to your gynecologist or primary care doctor right away. Don’t hesitate to discuss worrisome symptoms with your doctor.
How do I reduce my risk?
Most ovarian cancers just happen with no known cause. About 10 percent are genetically linked. If you know you have a genetic risk or family history, work with your doctor to find the best options for prevention. Also, Loyola’s cancer risk assessment and prevention program can fully evaluate your cancer risk, discuss available clinical trials and make recommendations for prevention or care. For other women in general, taking oral birth control that contains progesterone, having multiple full-term pregnancies or otherwise reducing ovulation can lower your chances of developing ovarian cancer.
How curable is it?
Some types of ovarian cancer are more easily found early and so have a better chance of being treated successfully. There are three types of ovarian cancer: Epithelial ovarian cancer is by far the most common, accounting for 85 to 90 percent of ovarian cancers. Epithelial cancer develops on the thin, outer surface of the ovaries. It is usually discovered in a later stage. Sex cord stromal cancer originates in ovarian tissue that contains hormone-producing cells. These stromal tumors can be found and treated at an earlier stage than epithelial tumors. Germ cell cancer begins in the ovaries’ egg-producing cells. This rare ovarian cancer tends to affect younger women. It may be diagnosed and treated earlier than epithelial cancer. New, promising ways are being developed to treat ovarian cancer. Loyola Medicine physicians and researchers are studying ways to use the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. In a recent, innovative clinical research trial at Loyola, women with advanced ovarian cancer were given a “vaccine” created from their own tumor cells. The vaccine signals the patient’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells. It’s another step in developing personalized medicine to fight cancer.
What type of screening is used to find ovarian cancer?
Currently, there is no recommended screening test. The FDA has warned that tests being marketed as screening for ovarian cancer are not reliable or effective. Researchers are developing and testing ways to screen for ovarian cancer so it can be found and treated as early as possible.
Margaret Liotta, DO, is a gynecological oncologist who cares for patients at Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center at Loyola University Medical Center campus in Maywood and at Loyola Center for Cancer Care & Research at Palos Health South Campus.