Ovarian cancer frightens women, and with good reason. More than 22,000 will be diagnosed with it this year–more than cancer of the uterus and cervix combined–and ultimately over 16,000 will die from it.
The main problem is that diagnosis is often made after the disease has spread. Researchers have studied a great deal of statistical data and there are some key steps you can take to reduce your risks.
- If many women in your family developed breast cancer before age 50, ovarian cancer, or both, you should be tested for the so-called breast cancer gene mutations, named BRCA1 and BRCA2 (shortened to BRCA1/2). Women with these genes are at greater risk for ovarian cancer and need careful monitoring by their doctors, including regular pelvic exams and repeated Ca-125 blood tests to look for signs of ovarian cancer.
- Although it may sound drastic, if you are BRCA1/2 positive, having your ovaries removed reduces your risk to practically zero.
- All women should watch for key symptoms of ovarian cancer, called a silent killer because symptoms are subtle. Surveys of women with ovarian cancer show that symptoms were present, often for months before diagnosis. These symptoms are: (1) new and persistent pelvic or abdominal pain, (2) bloating, and (3) increasing abdominal girth. Other symptoms include constipation, poor appetite, nausea, and urinary urgency. The challenge, of course, is that these symptoms can signal conditions other than ovarian cancer.
- Many women request the Ca-125 blood test in an attempt to ensure they don’t have ovarian cancer. But numerous studies have shown that a single test in a low-risk woman is not particularly helpful. Virtually all results are normal and when the result seems abnormal, it’s found to be a false-positive (that is, there’s no disease present)
Your best bets are regular pelvic exams, reporting any disturbing symptoms to your doctor, and getting tested for the BRCA1/2 gene if your family risk is high.