Ovarian Cancer: Stopping a Secret Killer

Ovarian cancer kills thousands of women each year, but it shouldn’t. New research is shedding light on how to prevent this deadly cancer, and early detection can save your life. Here’s what you need to know.

Ovarian Cancer: Stopping a Secret Killer

When ovarian cancer is discovered in its earliest stage, it has a 90% survival rate over the next five years. Yet 16,000 women die from it every year, making it the deadliest reproductive system cancer for women. Why? Because in 85% of women it's discovered too late. What doctors are learning now can help us all detect and fight ovarian cancer earlier.

The New Fallopian Tube Connection

By looking at women who have a genetic predisposition to ovarian cancer, researchers have found the beginnings of cancer in their fallopian tubes, rather than their ovaries. The fallopian tubes are responsible for bringing eggs from the ovaries to the uterus, and scientists now believe they may also be shuttling cancer cells into ovaries, where a rich blood supply gives them a fertile place to grow.

The research is new and needs to be confirmed, but it could give doctors a new place to look for early signs of ovarian cancer, which has very few symptoms and is difficult to detect. Even more exciting, 40 studies have shown that tubal ligation (a surgery in which the fallopian tubes are “tied,” preventing pregnancy by keeping eggs from traveling to the uterus), reduces the risk of ovarian cancer by a third. And since ovary removal has many serious side effects – an elevated risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and dementia – tubal ligation may be a safer way to reduce ovarian cancer risk.

What Does this Mean for Me?

If you are at high risk for ovarian cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor about this cutting-edge research and how you might be able to take advantage of it in the near future to reduce your risk.

3 Risk-Reducing Steps You Can Take Now

  1. Know your risk profile
    At least 10% of women with ovarian cancer have a relative who has also had it. Do a thorough screening of your family on both sides to see if anyone has had breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer.

    If you have never been pregnant, began menstruating before age 12 or have had hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms, you may be at an increased risk for ovarian cancer.

  2. Consider the birth control pill. Being on the pill for more than 5 years will reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by about 50%. Discuss it with your doctor, since it can also raise the risk of other health conditions.
  3. Add 3 Cancer-Fighting Foods to Your Daily Diet
    has been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, and is a healthy, fiber-filled way to start your day.
    Spinach and other vibrant vegetables
    are packed with cancer-fighting chemicals called flavonoids that help your body deal fight the free radicals that can wreak havoc on our bodies, including the fallopian tubes and ovaries, and predispose us to cancer.
    Broccoli and caulifower
    are both full of compounds that can break down cancer-causing chemicals in your body. Both been shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and help patients with it live longer.

Six Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

When cancer grows in the ovaries, they secrete hormones and other substances that increase gas in the abdominal cavity and slow the bowels down, leading to constipation and a feeling of pressure and fullness. Here are the six critical symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Increased abdominal size
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Difficulty eating
  • Feeling full quickly

If you experience any of these warning signs, don’t panic. These symptoms are common and can be associated with many different conditions, which means ovarian cancer can be difficult to catch, but it also means many people who have one or more of these symptoms do not have ovarian cancer. If they are new for you, persist for more than a few weeks, and you experience them 50% of that time, you should talk to your doctor to get screened.

What the Doctor Will Do

The first step is a general exam, which includes pelvic and rectovaginal exams during which the doctor inserts a finger into the vagina and one into the rectum to feel the ovaries where they sit behind the uterus. If the exam is normal, experts say it’s OK to wait for a few weeks to see what happens. If the symptoms continue, the next step is an ultrasound, which can be transvaginal (through the vagina) or trans-abdominal (over your stomach). Sometimes doctors will also perform a simple blood test to look for a protein in the blood that is higher in many women who have ovarian cancer. However, other conditions can cause the level to rise and some women with ovarian cancer will not have elevated levels, so the test is not definitive.

Early Detection Will Save Lives

There is no reason ovarian cancer has to claim the number of lives it does every year. It’s largely curable if caught in time. So, share this information with the women in your life, pay attention to your body, and see a doctor if you have concerns.

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