Womens Health

Ovarian Cancer: Symptoms & Risks

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women. In the United States alone, some 20,000 women will develop ovarian cancer each year. During the same period of time, some 15,000 will die as a result of this disease.

Chances of survival are significantly increased if ovarian cancer is detected early. The problem is that many women are unaware of the early symptoms of ovarian cancer, with only about 20% of cancerous tumors being detected before they have had a chance to spread to tissues outside the ovaries.

Until recently, doctors had believed that patients with ovarian cancer were largely asymptomatic (i.e. produced no symptoms). However, current cancer research has shown that signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer begin to manifest even in the early stages. Raising awareness about these symptoms and being aware of your risks may lead to earlier detection of ovarian cancer.

Who’s at Risk of Developing Ovarian Cancer?

There are a number of factors that can put you at increased risk for developing ovarian cancer. If any of the following risk factors apply to you, it is important to be increasingly aware of any developing symptoms of ovarian cancer.

    Inherited gene mutations. In the medical community this is seen as the single greatest determinant of whether or not a person will develop ovarian cancer. The gene mutations – called BRCA1 and BRCA2 – are responsible for approximately 5 to 10% of ovarian cancers.

    Family history. People who have a first degree relative (mother, daughter or sister) with ovarian cancer are at increased risk of developing the disease. If two or more first-degree relatives have ovarian cancer the risk is even greater. If other relatives (i.e. grandmother, aunt, cousin) have ovarian cancer, the risk is slight, but still present, as is the case with family histories of breast and/or colon cancer.

    Age. As a woman’s age increases, so does her risk of developing ovarian cancer. Most cases of ovarian cancers occur after menopause, especially after the age of 60.

    Childbearing Status. Women who have had at least one pregnancy are at a reduced risk of having ovarian cancer. Similarly, women who have used oral contraceptives also appear to be at reduced risk.

    Infertility. Women who have been diagnosed with "unexplained infertility" appear to also be at a higher risk of having ovarian cancer – even if they have never used fertility drugs.

    Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Certain studies have shown that women who have used HRT after menopause may be at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, although more research is needed in this area.

    Ovarian Cysts. While having an ovarian mass, or cyst, is often an normal part of ovulation for women who are premenopausal, their occurrence can be a source of concern for women who have already experienced menopause. The risk of cancer increases with age and the size of the cyst.

Early Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Many of the warning signs of ovarian cancer mimic other common conditions such as bladder infections and other digestive disorders. Indeed, women in the early stages of ovarian cancer are often initially diagnosed with these types of conditions.

However, if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms you should talk to your doctor about ovarian cancer – particularly if symptoms seem to be worsening over time, as this has been noted as a key feature of ovarian cancer symptoms. Symptoms of ovarian cancer can include the following:

Normally, doctors are able to diagnose ovarian cancer within three months of the onset of related symptoms. However, a proper diagnosis may take up to six months in some cases.

Diagnosing ovarian cancer is usually done through the use of ultrasound, CA 125 blood test, pelivic examiniation and/or laparoscopy.

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