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Early Detection Key to Beating Ovarian Cancer

Gynecological oncologists say that acknowledging early warning signs of ovarian cancer is the key to surviving the disease that claims nearly 15,500 lives each year.

Ovarian cancer is the seventh most common cancer in women, and more than 21,650 new cases will be diagnosed in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society.

The ovaries, two small, almond-shaped organs located in the female pelvis, produce the hormones that regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle and eggs for fertilization. Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells in one or both ovaries begin growing at an uncontrollable rate.

Ovarian cancer is extremely difficult to detect at early stages and can quickly spread to surrounding organs. If it goes untreated, ovarian cancer can result in death. However, if it is detected at an early stage before spreading, the patient can survive with appropriate treatment. It is important that a woman consults her gynecologist if she has abnormal symptoms, such as pelvic discomfort, abdominal bloating, indigestion, and starting to bleed again, especially for women who have already gone through menopause. Researchers believe that genetics plays a major role in the development of ovarian cancer. In fact, 5 to 10 percent of all patients have a genetic link to the disease.

Expert Recommendations

These steps are recommended for the prevention and early detection of ovarian cancer:

  • Understand your risk factors.

    Women who have a family history of certain cancers- breast, uterine, ovarian and colon, or who experience infertility, long-term uninterrupted ovulation, early menstruation or late menopause are considered most at risk. Women living in industrialized countries who are exposed to chemical carcinogens are also at higher risk.

    Research has shown that having multiple pregnancies, breast-feeding, and oral contraceptives, which delay ovulation, may lower the risk of ovarian cancer.

  • Have regular women’s health exams.

    Regardless of risk factors, women should undergo an annual physical and pelvic exam, which includes a rectal exam, to detect any abnormal growths. If the physician detects a change in size or shape of the ovary, he or she will recommend a blood test (tumor marker) or vaginal ultrasound examination to determine the extent of the abnormality.

  • Know the symptoms of the disease.

    Because the disease has very few early symptoms and there are no reliable screening techniques, more than 75 percent of ovarian cancer cases are not diagnosed until they are in advanced stages. Pelvic ultrasound and tumor marker tests are the only ways to detect ovarian cancer early.

    Women should consult a physician immediately if they experience persistent abdominal or pelvic pain, lack of appetite, decreased energy levels, changes in bowel or bladder habits, pain during intercourse, persistent abdominal bloating, or the start of a menstrual period again, especially when they have already gone through menopause.

  • Choose a healthy lifestyle.

    Ways to lower your risk for developing ovarian cancer include maintaining a diet low in animal fats and free of pesticides, taking multivitamins and antioxidants, and exercising daily.

What is on the Horizon?

Researchers have expanded their investigation down to the molecular level and are in the process of developing new tumor markers and better screening tests to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage. These researchers are also working to overcome drug resistance, discovering new chemotherapeutic agents, and performing clinical trials by using multiple agents, such as using chemotherapy given both intravenously and intraperitoneal. The other areas of research in clinical trials have focused on gene therapy, immunotherapy, and molecular targeted therapy.

This article originally appeared in UC Health Line (9/27/05), a service of the Academic Health Center Public Relations Department and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2006.

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