What to Know About Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer causes more deaths each year than any other gynecologic cancer in the U.S. An estimated 21,410 new cases of ovarian cancer were diagnosed in 2021 (National Foundation of Cancer Research). And since the symptoms are vague and only show themselves later in the disease, it is important to know what to look for as many women dismiss their symptoms.
The female reproductive system contains two ovaries, one on each side of the uterus. They produce ova (eggs) and hormones estrogen and progesterone. When abnormal cells grow in the ovaries and invade and destroy healthy cells, this is what we term ovarian cancer.
Initially there are usually no symptoms. Only 16% of women are diagnosed in the early stages according to the National Foundation for Cancer Research. When symptoms do occur later on, they are vague and often mimic other health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms may include:
- Abdominal bloating
- Feeling full quickly
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pelvic discomfort
- Back pain
- Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation
- Urinary urgency
- Pain during sex
Although there are risk factors identifies for ovarian cancer, having them does not mean you will get the disease.
- Older age
- Having the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes
- Family history of ovarian cancer
- Being overweight or obese
- Postmenopausal Hormone Replacement therapy
- Early onset of menses or late onset of menopause
- Never have been pregnant
Treatment of ovarian cancer usually consists of surgery and chemotherapy. No two patient are alike, so treatments depend on staging and type.
Using oral contraceptives (birth control pills) decreases the risk of developing ovarian cancer for average risk women and BRCA mutation carriers, especially among women who use them for several years. Women who used oral contraceptives for 5 or more years have about a 50% lower risk of developing ovarian cancer compared with women who never used oral contraceptives. Still, birth control pills do have some serious risks and side effects such as slightly increasing breast cancer risk. Women considering taking these drugs for any reason should first discuss the possible risks and benefits with their health care provider. (American Cancer Society)
Both tubal ligation and hysterectomy may reduce the chance of developing certain types of ovarian cancer, but experts agree that these operations should only be done for valid medical reasons -- not for their effect on ovarian cancer risk.
If your family history suggests that you (or a close relative) might have a syndrome linked with a high risk of ovarian cancer, you might want to consider genetic counseling and testing. During genetic counseling (by a genetic counselor or other health care professional with training in genetic risk evaluation), your personal medical and family history is reviewed. This can help predict whether you are likely to have one of the gene mutations associated with an increased ovarian cancer risk.
Lifestyle Actions to Support Your Health
Regular exercise lowers your risk of various diseases and improves energy and overall quality of life. It does not need to be intense. In fact, it can be small such as taken brisk walks with the dog.
A healthy diet is also important when it comes to your health. The American Cancer Society offer these tips for healthy eating after cancer treatments and for prevention:
- Try to eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables each day. These provide a number of important vitamins and nutrients your body needs to heal.
- Avoid or limit red meat and processed meats in your diet, such as beef, pork, lamb, and bacon.
- Eat high-fiber foods, like brown rice, whole-grain bread, and cereals.
- Choose low-fat dairy products.
- Limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day.
- Avoid eating too much food, as this is a main risk factor for cancer.
- Avoid refined sugars
- Eat foods higher in fiber
- Avoid red meat
- Incorporate omega 3 fatty acids in diet
- Add ground flax seed
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, especially cruciferous vegetables
- Take key vitamins including selenium daily, folic acid, vitamin D, chlorophyll, vitamin B12, and antioxidants.
(Full article by the NIH at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC526387/)
Sources: American Cancer Society, Mayo Clinic, Nutrition Journal