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Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month: Knowledge is Power

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

Ovarian Cancer graphic

It’s a stark fact: an effective screening test for ovarian cancer doesn’t exist. That’s why about 80 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed at advanced stages when chances of cure are poor.

But knowing the symptoms of ovarian cancer can save a woman's life. Dr. Fadi Abu Shahin, a Gynecologic Oncologist with GenesisCare at the Regional Cancer Center, shares his expertise about this deadly disease and why the need for early detection is crucial.

“Only about 20 percent of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. But if ovarian cancer is diagnosed early, a woman's chance of surviving five years increases to 93 percent,” Dr. Abu Shahin says. “It’s called the ‘silent killer’ because there are no reliable screening tests for it, and symptoms are not easily detectable at early stages.”

That’s why it’s important that you talk to your doctor about your personal risk for ovarian cancer, he advises. “The most valuable tool you have is to pay attention to your body and know what feels normal for you. Knowing the early signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer can lead to early diagnosis and life-saving treatment.”

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 21,000 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and 13,770 will die of the disease in 2021. The disease is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in women, causing more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.

Know the symptoms

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often like symptoms of other conditions, which explains why it’s often diagnosed in later stages. Common symptoms are persistent bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and frequent urination.

Other symptoms may include:

  • A heavy feeling in the pelvis
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Abnormal periods
  • Unexplained back pain that gets worse
  • Loss of appetite

Risk factors

Women have two ovaries in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus. Ovarian cancer is a group of diseases that originates in the ovaries or the related areas of the fallopian tubes and the peritoneum. Cancer cells that develop in these areas are capable of invading healthy body tissue and multiplying rapidly.

Most women who get ovarian cancer are not at high risk, but several factors may increase their risk, according to Dr. Abu Shahin.

Risk factors can include the following. If you:

  • Are middle-aged or older.
  • Have close family members (such as your mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother) on either your mother’s or your father’s side who have had ovarian cancer.
  • Have a genetic mutation (change) called BRCA1 or BRCA2, or one associated with Lynch syndrome.
  • Have had breast, uterine, or colorectal (colon) cancer.
  • Have an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish background.
  • Have endometriosis (a condition where tissue from the lining of the uterus grows elsewhere in the body).
  • Have never given birth or had trouble getting pregnant.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If you have any of these risk factors, that doesn’t mean you’ll get ovarian cancer, Dr. Abu Shahin says. But you should still talk with your doctor about your risk.

If you or your family have a history of ovarian cancer, he also recommends discussing genetic counseling. Tennis legend Chris Evert credits genetic testing for catching the disease at stage 1C, an early stage associated with an outstanding survival rate.

(Read: Chris Evert: A case study of how genetic testing and conversation may help diagnose ovarian cancer)

The Lee Health Regional Cancer Center can provide individualized treatment plans, advanced technology, and support for the cancer journey.

To speak with a nurse navigator, please call 239-343-9500. Visit Lee Health's cancer care page for more.