It’s September again and that means it’s Gynecologic Cancer Awareness month. This may not mean much to a lot of people, but it means a whole lot to the 80,000 women per year in the United States who are diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer. Some of you may ask, “What is that?” Gynecologic cancers are cancers that develop in the female genital tract, including cancers of the ovaries, fallopian tubes (yes, they can become cancerous), uterus, cervix, vagina or vulva. While cancer of the uterus is the most commonly diagnosed of these, cancer of the ovaries is the most deadly.
This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 21,880 women in the US diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 13,850 deaths. Although these numbers are much less than the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer, the chances of dying from ovarian cancer are much higher. This is because the majority of women with ovarian cancer (75-80%) are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread outside of the ovaries into the pelvis and abdomen, making it much more difficult to cure. When the cancer has already spread, the chance of cure ranges from 20-40%.
One of the most difficult things is diagnosing ovarian cancer early, when it is confined to the ovary and the chance for cure is high – about 90%! It is difficult to diagnose for several reasons. First, the ovaries sit deep in a woman’s pelvis and can grow from their normal size (a half-inch to 3 inches) to the size of a grapefruit or more before they are big enough for a woman, or even her doctor, to notice! Think about it: A woman is usually at least 3 months pregnant before she starts showing, and by this time, the uterus holding the baby is three times its normal size.
Another reason ovarian cancer is hard to diagnose is because the symptoms are very subtle and not specific to ovarian cancer. It was only a few years ago that we recognized that there are symptoms that commonly occur with ovarian cancer, such as:
- Persistent pelvic or abdominal pain or pressure
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Feeling the need to urinate urgently or often
However, we have all probably experienced these symptoms at one time or another, and they can also be caused by many other things – most of which are not ovarian cancer!
Finally, there is no one solid screening test – or good test for early diagnosis – for ovarian cancer. Part of the problem is that because ovarian cancer is not common, it is very hard to find a reliable test that is sensitive (finds ovarian cancer early) and specific (doesn’t confuse other things with ovarian cancer).
All this being said, progress in treating ovarian cancer and helping women with ovarian cancer is being made! A woman diagnosed today with ovarian cancer has a better chance for cure and a likelihood of living much longer (and better) than 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. We have more and better treatments than in the past (and more in development), and we have learned a lot about what things increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer, and how she can reduce her risk of developing the disease.
One of the most important things today is the fact that we are talking about it! Women know their bodies better than anyone else, but they can’t help themselves if they don’t know what to look for!
Knowledge is power and knowing about ovarian cancer can help save lives!
For more information on ovarian cancer, please visit www.ovarian.org.