From Symptoms to Screening: A Deep Dive into Ovarian Cancer

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Ovarian cancer isn’t a single disease–it’s a group of diseases originating in the ovaries. Ovarian cancer is unique, complex, and often misunderstood. Its symptoms can be vague, making detection challenging. What's more, it can occur in women of all ages, though it mainly develops in older women.

No standard screening test exists for ovarian cancer, underscoring the importance of awareness. There’s no way to prevent ovarian cancer, but some factors are associated with a lower chance of ovarian cancer. Learn more about the warning signs, risk factors, and detection challenges.

The understated symptoms
It’s nearly impossible to “feel” ovarian tumors or know that you have the disease based on how you feel. Yet, some common red flags can be clues that something is amiss:

-Swollen abdomen
-Feeling full after a light meal
-Urinary problems
-Pelvic discomfort and cramps
-Constipation, diarrhea, or other bowel changes (noticed by approx. 20% of diagnosed individuals)

Unfortunately, red flags in early-stage ovarian cancer are almost always absent. They typically appear in more advanced cases and are often overlooked or mistaken for other conditions. Recognizing your family history of breast and ovarian cancer and being attentive to changes in your body can make a difference. Consult your doctor if you have any of these symptoms or have a history of ovarian cancer in your family.

Unlike breast, colon, and cervical cancers, there’s no effective test to screen women at average risk for ovarian cancer. While helpful in detecting other conditions early, screening tests for other gynecological cancers, such as pelvic exams, a Pap smear, or HPV (human papillomavirus) test, don’t detect ovarian cancer. Speak with your doctor about these tests and their frequency.

Hereditary factors
A family history of ovarian or breast cancer, particularly in certain genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, can increase your ovarian cancer risk. Ovarian cancer doesn’t show up in routine blood work, but your doctor may recommend a CA-125 blood test if you have Lynch syndrome, BRCA mutation, or other inherited genetic risks. This test measures the CA-125 levels in your blood, a protein that tends to be high in women with ovarian cancer. Still, no concrete proof suggests that this test lowers the chances of dying from ovarian cancer.  Your doctor may suggest genetic counseling and testing if your family history shows a potential genetic link. This evaluation can help predict your likelihood of having one of the genes linked to increased ovarian cancer risk.

Treatment options
Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. The type of surgery you may need depends on your cancer and whether it has spread outside your ovaries. If you have a high ovarian cancer risk, your doctor may recommend preventive surgery to remove your ovaries and fallopian tubes. This procedure, called a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, differs from a partial or total hysterectomy that retains the ovaries and doesn’t diminish ovarian cancer risks. If you believe you’re at risk of ovarian cancer, ask your doctor to refer you to a gynecologic oncologist to discuss your options.

The takeaway
Ovarian cancer has various subtypes, each with distinct characteristics and treatment options. Unlike other cancers, no standard screening test exists for ovarian cancer. This underscores the importance of being aware of and reporting unexplained symptoms. Common symptoms include bloating and unusual bowel movements. Most women who catch ovarian cancer early recover after their initial treatment. Treatment depends on your type of cancer and how advanced it is. Talk to your doctor about potential risks and whether you need further evaluation by a gynecologic oncologist. If you have ovarian cancer, consult your gynecologic oncologist about clinical trials and always weigh the benefits and risks of your treatment options.