Ovarian cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to diagnose in women. With symptoms that can mimic other conditions and a general lack of public awareness, many potential diagnoses often fall under the radar.
National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, since its inception in September 2000, aims to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and educate women about its risks and symptoms. It’s not meant to incite fear or concern, but rather to encourage women to pay attention to their bodies and to advocate for additional research.
Ovarian cancer is an overarching term for cancer that originates in your ovaries. Your ovaries are responsible for producing hormones and eggs which, before menopause, go into your fallopian tubes before entering your uterus. What’s interesting is that more recent research finds that ovarian cancer may not always originate in the ovaries but can also develop in other types of reproductive tissue, such as the fallopian tubes.1
There are a few different types of ovarian cancer which include epithelial, germ cell, stromal cell, and small cell cancer. Each type of cancer originates in distinct places within your ovaries, such as germ cell cancer in your reproductive cells, and includes various histological subtypes. Histological subtypes are grouped together based on related cell and tissue structures and can include high-grade serous carcinoma, low-grade serous carcinoma, and clear cell carcinoma, for instance.
Post-menopausal women are much more likely to receive a diagnosis as opposed to women under the age of 40. Some studies suggest that the longer a woman has a period or has higher levels of estrogen in her system, the higher the risk she has of ovarian cancer, but most researchers agree that there is a need for more studies.
Other risks include gene mutations (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 which are also common among breast cancer diagnoses), a family history of ovarian cancer, and certain lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity and frequent drinking.
What you need to know
Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common type of cancer to impact women and the third most common type of gynecological cancer.2 About 70% of all ovarian cancer diagnoses are serous carcinomas, which is the most common type of ovarian tumor by far and is a type of epithelial ovarian cancer.
Diagnosing ovarian cancer often occurs in its later stages which makes treatment more difficult and contributes to a higher mortality rate than other types of cancer. For someone diagnosed at a more advanced stage, there is a five-year survival rate of 17-29%.1 On the other hand, if ovarian cancer were detected in earlier stages, such as stage one the five-year survival rate goes all the way up to 92%. On average, ovarian cancer has a survival rate of 30-40% over the same period of time.
And while it’s celebratory that studies share the rate at which ovarian cancer is diagnosed among women is decreasing, it continues to increase in younger women. While researchers are still uncovering why this is the case, some hypothesize that it may relate to the use of birth control, smoking, or obesity.2 Regardless of the cause, identifying ovarian cancer in its early stages is vital.
Because of its high mortality rate, screenings for ovarian cancer are becoming more and more common, but the best way to detect ovarian cancer is through reported symptoms.
Up to 72% of women diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer showed symptoms of the disease prior to diagnosis. Common symptoms can include stomach pain, feeling full soon after eating, intense pelvic pressure, and vaginal bleeding. Some women also report feeling more bloated or needing to use the restroom more frequently.
What makes a diagnosis so complicated is that these symptoms are also indicative of other, more common conditions, such as IBS. This is why it’s important to know your risk factors and when to speak up about your recurring symptoms with your doctor. Ultrasounds, pelvic exams, and blood tests are also used to check for additional signs of ovarian cancer.
This September, take a moment to learn more about ovarian cancer, its risks, and how you can help advocate for more awareness. Always check with your healthcare practitioner about symptoms that concern you.
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month Resources
1 – Funston, G.; Hardy, V.; Abel, G.; Crosbie, E.J.; Emery, J.; Hamilton, W.; Walter, F.M. Identifying Ovarian Cancer in Symptomatic Women: A Systematic Review of Clinical Tools. Cancers 2020, 12, 3686.
2 – Huang, J.; Chan, W.C.; Ngai, C.H.; Lok, V.; Zhang, L.; Lucero-Prisno, D.E., III; Xu, W.; Zheng, Z.-J.; Elcarte, E.; Withers, M.; et al. Worldwide Burden, Risk Factors, and Temporal Trends of Ovarian Cancer: A Global Study. Cancers 2022, 14, 2230.