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Silent Killer: Ovarian Cancer

In women age 35 to 74, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition | 7/21/2013, 1 a.m.
Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is a disease in which malignant or cancerous cells are found in the ovaries. An ovary is one of two small, almond-shaped organs located on each side of the uterus that store eggs or germ cells and produce female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

What is the general outlook for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer?

In women age 35 to 74, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths. An estimated one woman in 71 will develop ovarian cancer during her lifetime. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be over 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed this year and that more than 15,000 women will die from ovarian cancer this year.

When one is diagnosed and treated in the earliest stages, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. Due to ovarian cancer’s non-specific symptoms and lack of early detection tests, only 19 percent of all cases are found at this early stage. If caught in stage III or higher, the survival rate can be as low as 30.6 percent. Due to the nature of the disease, each woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer has a different profile and it is impossible to provide a general prognosis.

Symptoms

Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect, especially, in the early stages. This is partly due to the fact that these two small, almond shaped organs are deep within the abdominal cavity, one on each side of the uterus. These are some of the potential signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often

Other symptoms of ovarian cancer can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach or heartburn
  • Back pain
  • Pain during sex
  • Constipation or menstrual changes

If symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see your physician.

Persistence of Symptoms

When the symptoms are persistent, when they do not resolve with normal interventions (like diet change, exercise, laxatives, rest) it is imperative for a woman to see her doctor. Persistence of symptoms is key. Because these signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer have been described as vague or silent, only around 19 percent of ovarian cancer is found in the early stages. Symptoms typically occur in advanced stages when tumor growth creates pressure on the bladder and rectum, and fluid begins to form.

  • A rectovaginal pelvic examination is when the doctor simultaneously inserts one finger in the rectum and one in the vagina.
  • It is helpful to take a mild laxative or enema before the pelvic exam.
  • Have a comprehensive family history taken by a physician knowledgeable in the risks associated with ovarian cancer. 5 percent to 10 percent of ovarian cancer has a familial link.

Every woman should undergo a regular rectal and vaginal pelvic examination. If an irregularity of the ovary is found, alternatives to evaluation include transvaginal sonography and/or tumor markers. The most common tumor marker is a blood test called the CA-125.

Diagnosis and Tests

Unfortunately, most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced-stage disease (Stage III). This is because the symptoms of ovarian cancer (particularly in the early stages) often are not acute or intense, and present vaguely. In most cases, ovarian cancer is not detected during routine pelvic exams, unless the doctor notes that the ovary is enlarged. The sooner ovarian cancer is found and treated, the better a woman’s chance for recovery. It is important to know that early stage symptoms are not silent – so women should be extra alert and watch out for early symptoms.