Health Matters – Ovarian Cancer

One in 70 women in Canada will develop ovarian cancer. Death from ovarian cancer exceeds all other gynecological cancers in Canada. However, when this cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate is as high as 90 per cent. Unfortunately, 70 per cent of cases are not detected until the later stages, when the five-year survival rate drops to less than 25 per cent.

According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 95 per cent of women with ovarian cancer experienced symptoms before being diagnosed. Therefore ovarian cancer is not ?the silent killer? as previously thought. The problem may be that when early symptoms arise women are not seeking medical attention. One of the early symptoms includes a feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen. This is usually evident as a woman feels her clothes fitting more snuggly around the middle. Another early symptom is urinary urgency, feeling as if you have to go right away. These are all symptoms that women often ignore or attribute to other conditions. Therefore, they do not visit their family doctor until these signs become severe.

Similar to most types of cancer, the cause of ovarian cancer is unknown. However, there are some factors that increase a woman’s risk for developing this disease. Age is one factor, as the disease is ?most common in women over the age of 50,? and the risk increases with age. A family history of ovarian cancer also increases a woman’s risk for the disease. Genetic testing can help to identify those who carry a mutation gene which puts them at greater risk. Women carrying this mutation can came from any background, but it is most prevalent among Ashkenazi Jewish women.

Ethnic background plays a role in the incidence of ovarian cancer as rates are higher among white women in Europe and North America, and lowest among black women. Furthermore, studies have shown an increase in ovarian cancer in affluent societies, attributed to a diet high in animal fat.

Women who have no children, or few children, or who delay childbearing until after age 35, have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. As well, women who begin menstruating early and continue after age 50 are exposed to estrogen for a longer period, consequently increasing their risk for ovarian cancer. On the other hand, women who take birth control pills lower their risk, due to cessation of ovulation and reduced exposure to estrogen. Also, women who have had breast or endometrial cancer may be at an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

If ovarian cancer is suspected there are several tests your physician may use to help in making a diagnosis. Tests include a pelvic exam, blood tests, ultrasound and/or a biopsy. A blood test that is proving to be helpful in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer (in conjunction with other diagnostic tools) is CA-125. This test may or may not be covered under your medical insurance; nonetheless, it may be well worth the investment.

As with most cancers, early diagnosis is your best chance for survival. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to any of the previously mentioned symptoms and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

To find out more information about ovarian cancer visit the National Cancer Institute website, the Mayo Clinic site, or the National Ovarian Cancer Association.