We’ll start with good news. Ovarian cancer incidence rates have been decreasing since the mid-1980s according to the American Cancer Society.
“The death rate declined by 33 percent between 1976 and 2015. This progress is due to reductions in incidence and improvements in treatment,” ACS says on their website.
Why? Most likely because of the increase in oral contraceptive usage, which ACS says, is known to reduce risk.
“Among women who use oral contraceptives for five to nine years total, risk is reduced by about 35 percent. In addition to oral contraceptives risk is reduced with childbirth and tubal ligation.”
On the flip side, hormone replacement therapy increases the risk. And, despite the improvement the statistics are still alarming. About 22,240 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer this year and approximately 14,070 women will die from it.
“Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system,” ACS says. “A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 78. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about one in 108.”
The worse news is that symptoms are subtle if any. Mayo Clinic says that early ovarian cancer rarely causes any symptoms and advanced-stage ovarian cancer “may cause a few nonspecific symptoms that are often mistaken for more common benign conditions.”
If you experience abdominal bloating or swelling, quickly feeling full while eating, weight loss, discomfort in the pelvis area, changes in bowel habits as in constipation, or a frequent need to urinate please make an appointment with your healthcare professional.
“If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer, talk to your doctor about your risk of ovarian cancer. Your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor to discuss testing for certain gene mutations that increase your risk of breast and ovarian cancers,” Mayo recommends.
Even though they know the risks, there isn’t a clear picture of what causes ovarian cancer.
“In general, cancer begins when a cell develops errors (mutations) in its DNA. The mutations tell the cell to grow and multiply quickly, creating a mass (tumor) of abnormal cells. The abnormal cells continue living when healthy cells would die. They can invade nearby tissues and break off from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize),” ACS explains.
They say that the type of cell where the cancer begins is what determines the type of ovarian cancer, and there are typically three areas. Epithelial tumors are the most common claiming 90 percent of ovarian cancers. They begin in the thin layer of tissue that covers the outside of the ovaries. Stromal tumors, which begin in the ovarian tissue that contains hormone-producing cells, are typically diagnosed at an earlier stage than other tumors. They account for about seven percent of ovarian tumors.
Germ cell tumors begin in the egg-producing cells, and tend to occur in younger women. Speaking of ages, ovarian cancer can occur at any age but occurs more often in older women. Mayo says 50 to 60. ACS says that about half of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 63.
What other risks are there besides age, family history, HRT or inherited gene mutations? Age when menstruation started and ended.
“Beginning menstruation at an early age or starting menopause at a later age, or both, may increase the risk of ovarian cancer,” Mayo Clinic says.
If it sounds like it’s pretty much out of your hands, you’re right. Other than taking birth control which comes with its own risks, there really isn’t anything you can do except to be sure to discuss your risk factors with your primary care provider.
Besides surgery and chemotherapy, today medicos are having a limited success with antibody therapy also known as immunotherapy which uses enhanced antibodies to identify disease targets and then kill them or summon immune cells to kill them. But despite some successes “limited” is the operative word.
Like any cancer, early detection is critical. You know your body best. Listen to what it’s telling you and remember it’s far better to have tests come out negative than not to be tested at all.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.