September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness and a time to learn about the symptoms and risk factors of ovarian cancer so you can be proactive about your health. Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread, so education and early detection are critical. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Over 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the US, and more than 14,000 lose their lives annually to the disease. Because ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, raising awareness about symptoms and screening for early detection is key.
Education and awareness about early signs and symptoms can help catch the disease early. Some of the symptoms include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating, unexplained wight variations, indigestion or nausea, and fatigue. At-risk women, especially those over age 55 or with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, should get regular screenings. While there is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer, a pelvic exam, transvaginal ultrasound, and CA-125 blood test may help detect the disease at an early stage.
Recent Improvements in Ovarian Cancer Screening
Recent years have seen exciting improvements in ovarian cancer screening and early detection. New screening tests are enabling doctors to detect ovarian cancer earlier, even in asymptomatic women, offering patients the best chance at successful treatment.
CA-125 Blood Test
The cancer antigen 125 or CA-125 blood test has been used for decades to monitor ovarian cancer recurrence. Now, the test is also showing promise for early detection. By testing CA-125 levels, doctors can identify elevated levels that may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer cells. When combined with transvaginal ultrasounds, the CA-125 test increases early detection rates.
Transvaginal ultrasounds use sound waves to examine the ovaries and surrounding pelvic region. Ultrasounds can detect abnormal ovarian masses that may be cancerous. When performed regularly, ultrasounds increase the likelihood of early ovarian cancer detection by up to 89 percent.
Routine pelvic exams remain one of the best methods for early ovarian cancer screening. During a pelvic exam, a doctor examines the ovaries and uterus for any abnormalities in size, shape or texture that could indicate ovarian cancer. While pelvic exams will not detect all cases of ovarian cancer, especially in early stages, they continue to be an important screening tool.
Exciting Breakthroughs in Ovarian Cancer Treatments
Exciting breakthroughs in the treatment of ovarian cancer offer new hope for improved outcomes. Several promising options are showing success in clinical trials and receiving approval for wider use.
Immunotherapy harnesses the power of a woman’s own immune system to combat cancer cells. Drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors, help boost the body’s T cells to better target tumors. Used alone or in combination with chemotherapy, immunotherapy has shown promising response rates for some women with recurrent ovarian cancer in clinical trials.
PARP inhibitors are targeted drugs that block an enzyme cancer cells need to repair damage to their DNA. For women with ovarian cancers caused by mutations in the BRCA genes, PARP inhibitors can be very effective for controlling or slowing the growth of recurrent cancer. The FDA has approved several PARP inhibitors for maintenance therapy after recurrence and initial treatment.
Promising research continues at a rapid pace. On the horizon, cancer vaccines, and combination treatments offer hope of new options to outsmart this disease. Although ovarian cancer is challenging to overcome, celebrating awareness of these medical advances provides inspiration that science is winning the fight. With increased research funding and enrollment in clinical trials, new generations of treatments are on the way to make ovarian cancer a chronic rather than terminal illness.
It is important to understand your risks and take proactive steps to safeguard your health. Several factors may increase your susceptibility to developing ovarian cancer:
Age is the greatest risk factor for ovarian cancer. Most cases occur in women over 50, with the highest rate of diagnosis in women over 65. As women age, the risk of ovarian cancer rises due to natural hormonal changes during menopause and cellular damage accumulating over time.
Having a first-degree relative such as a mother, sister or daughter with ovarian cancer puts you at higher risk. According to research, women with a family history of ovarian cancer have a 3 to 7 times greater chance of developing the disease themselves. Genetic testing may be recommended for some women to determine if they carry hereditary gene mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Women who have never been pregnant or had children, have had fertility treatments, or have had their first pregnancy after age 35 have a higher ovarian cancer risk. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are protective against ovarian cancer, likely due to hormonal changes that occur during these periods.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Excess body weight and obesity create hormonal imbalances and chronic inflammation in the body that can influence the development of ovarian cancer. Losing weight and exercising regularly may help lower your risk. Certain dietary factors like a high fat diet have also been linked to increased ovarian cancer risk. Focus on an anti-inflammatory diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
Knowing and understanding these risks empowers you to take action. Talk to your doctor about appropriate screening based on your age and risk factors. Making healthy lifestyle changes can also go a long way toward ovarian cancer prevention. Increased awareness and education are the first steps to overcoming this silent killer.