Gilda Radner. Coretta Scott King. Kathy Bates. Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller. Each was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women ages 35-74. Women don’t undergo routine screening for ovarian cancer because there is no simple and reliable screening test, and symptoms are subtle and common among other conditions. That’s why ovarian cancer is often diagnosed in later stages rather than early on when treatment is most effective. Although it accounts for only 3 percent of all cancers in women, ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
Kathy Bates and Shannon Miller are survivors. You can be, too. Here’s a crash course on what you should know about ovarian cancer.
While the cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, there are known risk factors. Some you can’t control, such as an inherited gene mutations, the age you were when menstruation started and ended, never being pregnant and – what many feel is the largest contributing factor to ovarian cancer – age. What you can do is pay close attention to changes in your body and regularly see a gynecologist, so if you do wind up battling ovarian cancer, it’s caught early when chances of survival are greater. If it is determined you have a genetic predisposition for ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend regular pelvic exams and blood tests to make sure your health is in top shape.
Other risks of ovarian cancer are smoking and long-term estrogen hormone replacement therapy.
If one or more of these factors is true for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get ovarian cancer, but you should talk with your doctor about your risk.
Signs and Symptoms
Ovarian cancer may cause one or more these signs and symptoms:
- Upset stomach
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Menstrual changes
- Abdominal swelling with weight loss
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms, such as urgency or frequency
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
These symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer. The only way to know is to see a doctor. Your doctor may perform a rectovaginal pelvic exam, a transvaginal ultrasound or a CA-125 blood test. These tests can help find or rule out ovarian cancer.
The treatment for ovarian cancer isn’t much different than the treatment for other types of cancer. The type of treatment you receive will largely depend on your specific health and how quickly the cancer has progressed or how invasive it is.
Common treatment options include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and radiation therapy. Oftentimes, your doctor will recommend a combination of two or more of these treatments to get you well again.
Dr. Megan Pallister is an Obstetrics and Gynecology specialist at Kelsey-Seybold who treats patients at Tanglewood Clinic and the Woman’s Center. Her clinical interests include abnormal uterine bleeding, routine gynecologic care, minimally invasive surgery, hysteroscopy, pregnancy care, office procedures and colposcopy.