Employee & Community Health

Ovarian Cancer: 'Listen' for symptoms of this 'silent killer'

9/26/2016 by Dr. Natalie Gentile

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As a brand-new, 18-year-old college freshman, the word “cancer” never crossed my mind. In hindsight, I think the cancer had been growing for several months. When my mom had to bring a larger size of jeans to me at school, I figured my abdominal bloating was just the “freshman 15.” Like most women with ovarian cancer, my symptoms were so vague there was no way I could have known what was happening inside my body.

It wasn’t until the tumor had gotten big enough to twist my ovary, an excruciating event called “ovarian torsion,” that I was made aware that something was seriously wrong. In reality, the torsion was the most fortunate thing that could have happened, because it was through medical evaluation for my pain that the tumor was found.

My cancer was caught early: a stage 1A immature teratoma, which is a malignant and rare type of ovarian cancer. Many women are not as fortunate, which is why I want to bring attention to this serious issue.

This is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. But for those of us who have been affected by ovarian cancer – including my own sister, who thankfully caught her cancer early, as well –  we’re aware of this disease every day. Some call ovarian cancer the “silent killer,” but with body awareness and open discussions with your Care Team, you may be able to hear the symptoms early enough. Here are some facts we currently have about ovarian cancer:

Stats

  • If a mass is noted on the ovary of a woman of reproductive age, up to approximately 15% will be malignant. That number goes up to about 30% in women 50 or older.
  • Studies have found that up to 95% of women with ovarian cancer experienced symptoms an average of three to six months before diagnosis.
  • Ovarian cancer is diagnosed early in only about 30% of cases.

Symptoms

Some of the most-common symptoms include abdominal bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue and urinary symptoms, like frequency and urgency. But remember, these are all very non-specific symptoms that almost every woman experiences at one time or another. The key is that, if these symptoms are persisting over time, then it’s important to bring them up with your provider.

Testing

Right now, we have no screening for ovarian cancer. The best thing women can do is see their providers for checkups and ask for a pelvic exam if we they have any concerns about ovarian cancer. The pelvic ultrasound is the primary way of assessing for ovarian masses. Your doctor can order this at your checkup.

There also is a blood test, called CA-125, which is a tumor marker. Whether it’s elevated or not, it doesn’t guarantee the presence or absence of ovarian cancer. Our gynecologic oncologists use it as part of the bigger picture, including symptoms, ultrasound findings and physical exam, to make decisions about your possibility of having ovarian cancer.

Prevention

Currently, there is nothing specific that can be done to prevent ovarian cancer. As with most cancers, avoiding cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and diets high in animal protein are good rules for lowering your risk of cancer.

Genetics

If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, remember to share this with your doctor, because it can affect your personal risk.

Dr. Natalie Gentile is a third-year Family Medicine resident in Employee and Community Health (ECH).