Employee & Community Health

Listen to your body to detect ovarian cancer

9/26/2019 by Dr. Marcia O'Brien

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Each year more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But only about 15% of the time will this cancer be detected in its early stages. Studies show that women usually have ovarian cancer for three to six months before it's caught. Not finding the cancer until it reaches an advanced stage leads to poorer outcomes; that's been a trend for 50 years. 

Why is ovarian cancer so hard to diagnose? Symptoms of the disease are frustratingly vague, including: 

  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, loss of appetite, feeling full early
  • Abdominal bloating and/or cramping, abdominal-back-pelvic pain or pressure, increasing abdominal girth
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Urinary frequency or urgency, changing bowel habits
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Leg swelling

That's why it's so important to listen to your body. You know it better than anyone, and if something feels "off" or concerning, talk with your provider. The sooner ovarian cancer is detected, the better the outcomes. With early diagnosis, the survival rate at five years is 93%. 

If you have symptoms, you'll undergo a physical exam. A pelvic exam, lab tests, such as blood testing for CA-125 (ovarian cancer tumor marker), and imaging by pelvic ultrasound can help aid the diagnosis, which is made by analyzing a tissue sample. If cancer is detected, then you'll begin meeting with specialists to treat it. 

Reducing your risk

Currently, routine screening for ovarian cancer isn't available or recommended. So it's up to women to listen to their bodies and take note of symptoms — even vague ones — that persist. You should be aware of your family history, any changes in that history and keep your health care provider up to date. 

If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, BRCA (BReast CAncer gene) 1 or 2 or other inheritable cancer syndromes, you and your provider should schedule regular follow-up and specialty consultations to develop an individualized care plan for reducing risk. 

Reducing your risk of ovarian cancer is the same as for all cancers. Avoid tobacco use, excess alcohol consumption, diets high in animal protein and animal fat, and being overweight/obese.

There's nothing specific for preventing ovarian cancer, but following these general wellness practices are good for maintaining overall health:

  • Diet. Eat less animal protein/fat, more vegetables and fruits, and cut back or eliminate eating processed foods. 
  • Exercise. Strive for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times per week, including aerobic, strength, balance and flexibility and 10,000 steps a day. 
  • Weight. Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 19-24. 
  • Sleep. Aim for seven to nine hours a night. 

Ovarian cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, but accounts for only about 3% of cancers in women. On average, women have a one-in-75 lifetime chance of getting ovarian cancer. The risk is greater for women with a genetic predisposition, such as BRCA 1 or 2 or other inheritable cancer syndromes. Ovarian cancer is rare in women of child-bearing years; diagnosis typically is between the ages of 55 and 64, usually during menopause. 

So listen to your body. Don't brush your "woman's intuition" aside or wait until you have another reason or appointment to see your provider. With ovarian cancer, early detection is key to the best possible outcome. 

Dr. Marcia O'Brien is a Family Medicine physician at Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Mayo Family Clinic Northeast. She practices the full spectrum of family medicine, including hospital medicine, newborn nursery and obstetric care.