In the United States, ovarian cancer remains the deadliest of all gynecologic malignancies and the fifth leading cause of cancer death for women. The lack of an adequate early-detection screening assay is a major factor in the high fatality rate.
Michael Birrer MD, PhD, Medical Director of the Gillette Center for Gynecologic Oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center, answers questions about Ovarian Cancer.
Ovarian Cancer has been called a "silent killer". Why is it still so hard to detect in its early stages?
Most women with early-stage ovarian cancer don't have any symptoms, or they don't recognize the vague signs of advanced stage disease. The symptoms of ovarian cancer can easily be mistaken for other ailments and are often dismissed as passing annoyances. We need to make sure women listen to their bodies and pay attention when these symptoms last for more than a couple of weeks, happen together, or just feel unusual for them.
Reading the symptoms and seeking medical attention are crucial, because there are no reliable early-stage screening tests for ovarian cancer.
What are the symptoms women should watch for?
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary urgency or frequency
- Nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation or diarrhea
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
If any of these symptoms last more than two weeks, contact your doctor immediately.
Are there risk factors that women should be concerned about?
Certainly, there are risk factors that make women more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Those with a family history of breast, ovarian and colon cancers may have inherited a genetic mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that substantially increases their risk for ovarian cancer. Women with first degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter) with the mutation should be tested to be aware of their own risk. Post-menopausal women are also at greater risk, as most ovarian cancer diagnosis occur after 65.
However, ovarian cancer can strike an aomwan at any age. Women should be aware of the risk, and contact their doctor when they experience any changes in their health.