A cancer diagnosis is always scary but ovarian cancer is particularly frightening because it's difficult to detect in its early, most easily treated stages.  Once a woman knows she has it, it's often too late to cure.  The National Cancer Institute (NCI) says 21,550 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed annually and 14,600 women will die from it. 

Our ovaries are part of our reproductive system, imbedded in our pelvis and about the size of an almond.  They're often difficult to feel during a pelvic exam. Most women are unaware their ovaries are in trouble until cancer has advanced.

Ovarian cancer starts on the cellular level but the NCI says it can grow and invade neighboring organs like the fallopian tubes and uterus.  It might also break off from the main ovarian tumor and cause new tumors to seed or implant in other organs or spread through the lymph nodes and grow in the abdomen, pelvis, or chest. Once cancer spreads, it's more challenging to control and often destroys vital organs and causes death.

Who's at Risk? 

There's no crystal ball and cancer can be unpredictable but we know that certain women are at higher risk.  They include women with a family history or previous personal history of cancer, especially of the breast, uterus, colon, or rectum; women over age 55; those who have never been pregnant and those who are on long-term hormone replacement therapy.

How do you know if you have it?

Early ovarian cancer doesn't give many signs but as the tumor grows, it presses on other tissues and produces more obvious symptoms.  The NCI says these include:

  • Pressure or pain in the abdomen, pelvis, back, or legs
  • A swollen or bloated abdomen
  • Nausea, indigestion, gas, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling the need to urinate often
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding (heavy periods, or bleeding after menopause)

A gynecologist is the best physician to diagnose ovarian cancer by doing a thorough physical and pelvic exam, ultrasound, blood tests and biopsy. The  NCI says a specific blood test, CA-125, may be useful to diagnose and track results of treatment.  Most women will require a laparoscopy for diagnosis.  A laparoscopy is a surgical procedure where a small camera and narrow tubes are inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.  It allows the surgeon to see the ovaries and perform a laparotomy (removal of tissue and fluid) for biopsy. 

Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment options vary depending on the stage of disease but may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation along with supportive treatments to minimize side effects.

We have a long way to go before we reach a cure for ovarian cancer but getting the word out about what women should look for will enable them to get help earlier.