5 Things You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer
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5 Things You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer

How to protect yourself against ovarian cancer, which is tough to diagnose, has no reliable screening test and -- though it accounts for only 3 percent of all cancers in U.S women -- is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

"It's a relatively rare cancer, but gets so much attention because it's so deadly. We consider it the worst of the gynecologic cancers," says Molly Brewer, M.D., professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Connecticut Health Center and spokesperson for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Here are her five tips on protecting yourself against ovarian cancer.

1. Know your risk factors. Anyone can get ovarian cancer, but you should be extra watchful if you have any of the following.

  • Either a family history of ovarian, breast, endometrial or colon cancer -- particularly if these cancers occurred in someone under 40 -- or the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes. These are the most important predictors of your risk for ovarian cancer and warrant a referral to a cancer genetic counselor.
  • Age, especially if you're over 50
  • Uninterrupted ovulation (you never stopped ovulating because of pregnancy or infertility)
  • Obesity
  • Hormone replacement therapy

2. Pay attention to your body. Recent research shows that ovarian cancer might not be the symptomless "silent killer" it was once thought to be. In fact, 95 percent of women with ovarian cancer report having symptoms. Here's the problem: Many signs of ovarian cancer also signal common digestive disorders. The difference is that while digestive disorders generally flare up, then disappear, ovarian cancer symptoms are more persistent and worsen over time.

Ovarian Cancer Danger Signs

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Urinary symptoms (you have to urinate more frequently and/or urgently)
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Abnormal postmenopausal bleeding

What to Do

3. Ask your doctor to run a diagnostic test. One of the most common reasons it takes so long to find ovarian cancer is that primary care physicians don't think to investigate ovarian cancer because it is rare and without definitive symptoms, and thus don't perform the necessary tests. If you suspect you might have ovarian cancer, make sure that you get a pelvic exam, transvaginal ultrasound and CA125 blood test.

4. Request a referral to a specialist. If your tests suggest you might have ovarian cancer -- or if you are convinced that your bloating is more serious than your physician thinks -- try to see a gynecologist or -- even better -- a gynecological oncologist, a gynecologist who specializes in cancers of the reproductive system.

5. Be committed to a healthy lifestyle: Exercise and a good diet are some of the best ways to prevent any type of cancer, says Dr. Brewer. Aim for at least 20 minutes of exercise a day and eat a diet high in green leafy vegetables and fruits.

Want More Information?

Check out these great resources.

  • Gynecologic Cancer Foundation www.thegcf.org or www.wcn.org
  • National Ovarian Cancer Coalition www.ovarian.org
  • Ovarian Cancer National Alliance www.ovariancancer.org
  • Ovarian Cancer Research Fund www.ocrf.org
  • Read Our Story on Gynecologic Cancers

Originally published on LHJ.com, September 2009.