September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. This is a great time to understand the resources available to you if you suspect you may be at risk for ovarian cancer. It is estimated that approximately 21,410 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021. Although this type of cancer has a mortality rate of 2.3%, that still equates to 13,770 estimated deaths this year. Fortunately, this rate is declining by about 3.3% every year. But it is still vital to know the facts, symptoms, and treatments available.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer begins in the fallopian tubes or ovaries. This type of cancer is particularly hard to detect before it has affected the functioning of other organs. Unfortunately, late diagnosis of cancer makes treatment more difficult. Ovarian cancer is not a common diagnosis for women under 40, and is most frequent in women 63 and older.
The three most common types of cells that lead to ovarian cancer are surface epithelium, stromal cells, and germ cells. A surface epithelium is a layer of tissue formed by a cluster of cells that line the outer surface of organs, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Ovarian cancer starts to form when these cells combine to form tumors. These can be benign, borderline, or malignant.
About 1% of all ovarian cancers are ovarian stromal cell tumors. Of this percentage, half are found in women over 50 years old. The most common malignant type of stromal tumors is granulosa cell tumors. The other type is Sertoli-Leydig cell tumors. Stromal ovarian tumors have a low mortality rate of 25%; most patients with this form of ovarian cancer will live long after their diagnosis.
Another type of ovarian cancer is caused by germ cells. These cells can form in the eggs of females, but can also affect sperm. Although most of the tumors caused by germs cells are benign, some tumors can become cancerous and life threatening. Teratomas, dysgerminomas, and choriocarcinomas are all subtypes of germ cell ovarian cancer.
Symptoms and Risk Factors of Ovarian Cancer
Signs that you may have ovarian cancer are bloating, pain in the stomach or abdomen, difficulty eating, and urinary ugency. You may also experience fatigue, back pain, pain during sex, constipation, changes to your normal period, and abdominal swelling. These symptoms can be a sign of benign tumors or other kinds of cancer, so it is always best to consult your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms.
Maintaining a healthy diet has shown positive effects on ovarian cancer rates. Women who give birth after a full term pregnancy before the age of 26 have also shown lower rates of ovarian cancer. Furthermore, hormone therapy after menopause has been shown to increase risk compared to women who did not use estrogen or progesterone. The risk of ovarian cancer also increases with age.
There are hereditary risks for ovarian cancer. With one first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your risk is about 5%. If you have two or more relative with ovarian cancer, your risk of being diagnosed increases to an estimated 7%. If you fall into either of these categories, consult your physician about regular cancer screening to receive treatment as soon as possible. The later a diagnosis is made, the less effective treatment can be.
All in all, if you have a history of cancer in your family and are over the age of 40, you have an increased risk of ovarian cancer. But if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above more than 12 times a month, it is vital that you consult your doctor about the possibility of ovarian cancer.
One thing to be aware of: your regular Pap smear doesn’t test for ovarian cancer, just for cerviical cancer. If you are concerned about ovarian cancer, talk with your gynecologist.