There is a lot of gray area in ‘cancer’. The term includes conditions of nearly every organ in the body, and each organ may have different stages or levels. It can strike people at any age, any gender, and with wildly different effects depending on a host of factors that are once again different for each patient.
One particular type of cancer is decidedly less egalitarian – ovarian cancer, which exclusively attacks women, and with few exceptions only those within a certain age bracket. Those who meet the strict criteria of the carcinogenic gene – known as the BRCA gene – can find themselves facing critical illness in a relatively short amount of time.
As common as it is, there is still a certain lack of information about ovarian cancer in the medical community. Here is what we do know about ovarian cancer, and what it could mean for you.
The Silent Killer
Ovarian cancer is known as “the silent killer.” Why? Because the symptoms are so vague. They mimic so many other things that happen to women either during their monthly menstrual cycle or as they age. Symptoms include:
- Upset stomach
- Abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Feeling full quickly when eating
- Increase in frequency or urgency of urination
- Heavier-than-usual menstrual bleeding
- Unexplained weight gain
Sounds like all normal and common symptoms women can experience throughout their lifetime, pre or post menopausal. That’s what Brandi Maxiel, a reality tv star, thought. She was 24 when she began to have symptoms. She was first misdiagnosed, a common occurrence, and sent home with medication for back pain. The medication didn’t relieve her symptoms, and fortunately, she didn’t just accept this diagnosis–she knew something deeper was wrong. After seeking a second opinion, she was correctly diagnosed and underwent treatment.
Not Enough Survivors
Ovarian cancer kills lots of women. The American Cancer Society reports that ovarian cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer in women. A woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer is about 1 in 78, and her risk of dying from it is about 1 in 108. It mainly, though not always, strikes older women; about half of the women diagnosed are 63 or older. It’s more common in white women than in African-American women.
If it’s so common and deadly, why don’t we hear more about it? Alexander Nikitin from Cornell University has a theory: Because 70-80 percent of women diagnosed with this killer disease die within 5 years of diagnosis, there are not enough survivors left to advocate for it. That’s why ovarian cancer survivors were excited when celebrities decided to speak out about their experiences.
As with all cancers, early detection of ovarian cancer can lead to the best outcome possible. What should you look for? The above-listed symptoms are not very helpful. However, you should look for a change that doesn’t make sense with your past experiences.
One of the most significant risk factors is family history. If you have family members who have had ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancers, your risk is increased. A BRCA gene mutation, which can only be determined through genetic testing, is a significant risk factor in ovarian cancer.
Other risk factors include the following:
- Being overweight
- Having children late in life
- Using hormone replacement therapy after menopause
- Having had breast cancer
There is no real screening test for ovarian cancer. A yearly pelvic exam usually doesn’t find ovarian cancer early enough to be helpful. A test that shows some promise is a transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS), or ultrasound of the ovaries. Unfortunately, this test can’t tell if any masses discovered are cancerous or not. A blood test called the CA-125 test measures for a protein called CA-125 or cancer antigen 125. This test is not always reliable as other conditions can cause a rise in this protein. Imaging tests such as abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI can also be used to determine if tumors are present. When tumors are found, the only way to know whether they are cancerous or not is to remove them and evaluate them for cancerous cells.
Early detection of ovarian cancer provides the best outcomes. Unfortunately, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are vague and mimic other conditions. If you think you have been misdiagnosed and something deeper is wrong, get a second or third opinion. Keep asking until you get answers and continue to advocate for your own health.
- Unmasking a Silent Killer: Ovarian Cancer
- Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer
- Not All Cancer is Pink: Reality Star Brandi Maxiell on Surviving Ovarian Cancer
- Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer
- Women’s Silent Killer, Ovarian Cancer
- BRCA mutation in ovarian cancer: testing, implications and treatment considerations
- Ovarian Cancer Risk Factors
- Can Ovarian Cancer Be Found Early?