What You Should Know About Ovarian Cancer

Posted: 11/11/2008 06:30 PM EST

Posted Nov. 11, 2008 – Learning about ovarian cancer could save your life or the life of someone you know. Why?

• Because every female is at risk, regardless of age or ethnic origin.
• Because, with early diagnosis and specialized care, ovarian cancer survival rates increase dramatically.  That’s encouraging because you can be your own health advocate by learning more about ovarian cancer.  You can empower yourself and the women you love with ovarian cancer information.

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To help with early diagnosis of ovarian cancer:
• Have a gynecologic exam every year
• Tell your doctor of any changes in your body
• Know the risk factors for and the symptoms of ovarian cancer
• Research your family history (5-10% of all ovarian cancers are hereditary)
• Avoid the use of powders with talc in them
• If you are experiencing gastrointestinal problems or have any ovarian cancer symptom for more than two weeks, ask to be tested for ovarian cancer

Can you get ovarian cancer when you no longer have ovaries?
Absolutely!  Ovarian cancer occurs when cells within the ovary multiply abnormally, forming tumors.  Some tumors are benign, but some are malignant (cancerous).

The ovaries and the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen) arise from the same stem cell, and the cells are virtually identical.  Primary Peritoneal Cancer (PPC) occurs when the cancer begins in the peritoneum and the ovaries have already been removed or are present but only minimally involved.  PPC accounts for approximately 20% of all ovarian cancers.

What are some diagnostic tests that can be used to detect ovarian cancer?
Though ovarian cancer can only be positively diagnosed through microscopic evaluation (i.e., surgery and pathology tests), experts recommend the following tests if a female is symptomatic or at high risk for ovarian cancer.
• A bi-manual pelvic/rectal exam (A thorough physical exam of the female pelvic organs; physician inserts fingers in the rectum and vagina simultaneously to feel for abnormal swelling or to detect tenderness.)
• A CA125 blood test
• A transvaginal sonogram

Sometimes, a chest X-Ray and a CT-scan are also indicated.
A Pap smear does not detect ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?
Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies.  The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer.  Even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms.

Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than two weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist.  Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease.  Early stage diagnosis is associated with a greatly improved prognosis.

Consult a healthcare professional if any symptom persists or feels abnormal.

Is there some way females can reduce their ovarian cancer risk?
Though the following do not completely eliminate the risk, they can reduce a female’s risk for ovarian cancer:
• Having at least one child
• Breast feeding
• Use of oral contraceptives*
• Having tubes tied (tubal ligation)
• Having their ovaries removed

*Hormone replacement therapy may be associated with an increased risk in postmenopausal women.  Fertility drug use has been associated with an increased risk.  Another risk factor that has been suggested is the use of talcum powder in the genital area.

What can females do to find ovarian cancer early?
Every female should have an annual physical exam, including a complete gynecologic exam at the appropriate age, and discuss any changes in her body with her doctor.  Ovarian cancer can present subtle changes such as an increased waistline or persistent indigestion that has no apparent cause and does not respond to medicine.

What should I do if I think I might have ovarian cancer?
Go to your gynecologist and ask to be tested for ovarian cancer.  If there is any possibility that you have ovarian cancer, or any other gynecologic cancer, ask for a consultation with a gynecologic oncologist.

What medical specialists should treat ovarian cancer?
Research has shown that referral to a gynecologic oncologist is one of the top factors in increasing ovarian cancer survival rates, as well as decreasing rates of recurrence.  After completing a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, gynecologic oncologists complete an additional three-year fellowship specializing in precancerous and cancerous conditions of the GYN tract.

Five-year survival and disease free intervals for women whose surgeon was a gynecologic oncologist far surpass the rates for women treated by non-oncologist, OB/GYN, or general surgical groups.

How is ovarian cancer treated?
Ovarian cancer is usually treated by surgically removing all visible cancer, chemotherapy, and possibly radiation.

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