7 Things To Know About Ovarian Cancer

Medically reviewed in July 2022

We’ve heard a fair amount about ovarian cancer in the past year or so -- from the death of Pierce Brosnan’s daughter to Angelina Jolie’s consideration of having her ovaries removed due to her family history. But what is the disease? And how can you protect yourself?

1. How common is it?
Ovarian cancer is relatively rare (the National Cancer Institute projects 22,000 new cases in the U.S. this year, vs 232,000 cases of breast cancer). Unfortunately, it’s also one of the more dangerous, with 14,000 deaths expected as well.

2. Why is ovarian cancer so dangerous?
The main reason that ovarian cancer has such a poor prognosis is that most women are not diagnosed until late in the course of their disease. If someone is diagnosed before the cancer spreads outside the ovary, the five-year survival rates are good --  about 92%.  Unfortunately, only 16% of women are diagnosed this early, and once the disease has spread outside the ovary, the five-year survival rate falls to a dismal 26%.

3. What are the risk factors?
According to the National Cancer Institute, the greatest risk factor is family history. Having one first degree relative with the disease triples your chance of developing it. Still, 85% of patients with ovarian cancer have no clear genetic reason for it. Ovarian cancer risk increases with age, particularly after age 50. Some studies suggest that prolonged use of fertility drugs (over one year) or hormone replacement therapy for many years may increase your risk. Smoking is also linked with certain types of ovarian cancer.

4. What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include abdominal bloating, discomfort or pressure, pelvic pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly and having frequent, sudden urges to urinate.

5. What can be done to screen for it?
Currently, there’s no test for detecting the disease early -- which is partly why we don’t catch it until late. A new study out of MD Anderson analyzed screening for ovarian cancer with the tumor marker CA-125. While further research is needed, this seems to be a potentially promising option for screening post-menopausal women for ovarian cancer.

6. How can I protect myself?
Studies have shown that anything that decreases the number of times you ovulate can lower your risk. So, pregnancy, birth control pills and breastfeeding are all felt to be protective. In addition, obesity seems to raise your risk. Other studies have shown that a low-fat diet high in vegetables may decrease your risk.

7. I’m worried that I’m at high risk. What should I do?
If you are at a higher risk for ovarian cancer, speak with your doctor. You may want to ask him or her about a pelvic exam, pelvic ultrasound or blood test. It’s worth noting that ultrasound is usually unable to detect it in its earliest stages, and pelvic exams are typically not useful until later stages. Most importantly, as there is no proven screening method at this point, the greatest protection is vigilance. If you have any symptoms of ovarian cancer, speak with your physician quickly. For more information, along with a detailed guide on current treatments, check out the American Cancer Society page at cancer.org/cancer/ovariancancer.

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