Joan Ralph Webber is an Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist with Banner Desert Medical Center
Question: What are the signs and symptoms of Ovarian Cancer?
Answer: Historically, ovarian cancer has been portrayed as the silent killer, absent of symptoms; however, this pattern is changing. Studies have shown that approximately 3 to 4 months prior to diagnosis, women are identifying vague gastrointestinal or urinary changes.
Ovarian cancer accounts for 20 percent of the cancers in women, with more than 22,000 newly diagnosed cases yearly. Statistics are dismal and show that 15,000 deaths are predicted this year. The overall 5-year survival rate is 55%, however survival rates are improving with earlier detection.
It is uncertain what causes ovarian cancer, however the most significant risk factor is a strong personal or family history of breast, colon, or ovarian cancer. Other factors may include, never being pregnant, menarche before the age of 12, early menopause, and endometriosis. As well, some studies have also linked certain fertility drugs, use of talcum powder, and obesity. Having a risk does not mean that you will get ovarian cancer.
A high proportion of women remain asymptomatic in the early stages of the disease, presenting only with symptoms in the advance stages of the disease. These symptoms may include: abdominal bloating or discomfort, increased abdominal size or clothes that fit tighter around your waist, increase or urgent need to urinate, pelvic or back pain, nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation or diarrhea, feeling tired all the time, and unusual vaginal bleeding.
Screening for the disease is difficult. Available screening tools such as the sophisticated cancer antigen, CA-125, and the vaginal ultrasound have not shown to be sensitive or specific enough to be recommended for the general public.
Treatment may include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and or radiation. Being informed and learning about your disease will help you to become an active partner in making your medical decisions for treatment.
Given the relatively common symptoms, a greater awareness of disease and improved communication is needed. Several societies, including the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists, are urging women to seek medical attention if they have new or persistent symptoms. Early detection is the goal. Listen to your body and be alert to the changes!