Angelina Jolie brought worldwide attention to ovarian cancer last spring when she announced that she carried a genetic mutation increasing her risk of this disease. Her announcement left many women wondering: “Is ovarian cancer something I need to worry about?”
The short answer is that all women are at risk of developing ovarian cancer; about one in 72 will develop the invasive form of the disease during her lifetime. This might sound like a small number, but for the approximately 22,000 women diagnosed each year, the words, “You have ovarian cancer” are hard to hear. This is the deadliest gynecologic cancer and the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths for women.
Some women – including Angelina Jolie – have an increased risk of ovarian cancer because they inherited genetic mutations that increase their risk. In addition to mutations in the BRCA gene, which is linked to both breast and ovarian cancer, some women are more likely to develop ovarian cancer due to a genetic mutation called Lynch syndrome. Women with a family history of breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer may want to talk to a doctor about genetic counseling and testing.
Women who have never given birth, never used oral contraceptives or had their first child after age 30 are also at higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. Taking birth control pills is one way women can reduce their risk; those who take oral contraceptives for five or more years can reduce their risk by as much as 50%!
One reason why ovarian cancer is so deadly is that we don’t have an effective early diagnosis or screening test for this disease. Pap smears don’t check for this cancer—they only identify cervical cancer. However, studies have shown that many women with ovarian cancer do experience symptoms – a critical step in identifying the disease.
The symptoms most commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer are
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
If you feel these symptoms for 12 or more days in a given month without another explanation, talk to your doctor—preferably a gynecologist. The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance offers several tools women can use to track their symptoms, including a free mobile app that records symptoms and critical information about risk factors.
Ovarian cancer remains one of the riskiest cancers for women, but by learning the symptoms and risk factors, you can take steps to protect yourself. Learn more about this cause and how you can help women with ovarian cancer at ovariancancer.org.
The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance is a powerful voice for everyone touched by ovarian cancer. We connect survivors, women at risk, caregivers and health providers with the information and resources they need. We ensure that ovarian cancer is a priority for lawmakers and agencies in Washington, DC, and throughout the country. We help our community raise their voices on behalf of every life that has been affected by this disease.