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Ovarian Cancer - New Evidence

By Susan S Quinn



Unfortunately, one of the most lethal of all female cancers, ovarian cancer is now the 5th leading cause of cancer death for women, afflicting 1 out of 58 women in the United States. When diagnosed early, the five-year survival rate can be as high as 95%. However, most cases are diagnosed in a more advanced stage, and the five-year survival rate drops to 20-30%. Until recently, ovarian cancer was labeled the "silent killer" as early diagnosis was difficult due to a lack of signs and symptoms early on. However, based on recent evidence, we now know there are specific signs and symptoms which may present earlier within the disease process- when a cure is still possible.


Before we look at these signs and symptoms, it.s important to understand the definition of ovarian cancer, and how the disease progresses. Ovarian cancer begins in the cells within the ovaries, causing a tumor to grow and "seed" to other areas within the body. These malignant cells can implant anywhere in the abdominal cavity, but are more likely to implant in sites along and adjacent to the abdominal fluid circulation (bowel/bladder/spleen/liver/diaphragm/lymph nodes).

There are several thoughts as to what causes a tumor of the ovary to grow. One main theory involves the role of estrogen and progesterone in frequent ovulation- causing the ovaries to work over time. This is due to evidence that women who have had children, taken birth control pills, breastfed, or have had their tubes tied- providing a respite the ovaries- tend to have a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer than women who don't make these lifestyle choices. Other risks point to a personal or family history of breast, colon cancer or prostate cancer, being a carrier of the BRCA 1 or II gene mutation, use of talc powder, consuming high fat/processed foods, smoking, and not exercising regularly.

Promising Evidence:

Recent studies have proven that signs and symptoms are often present early within the disease. These include persistent complaints of gas, nausea, indigestion, bloating, feeling full early after meals, urinary frequency/urgency, change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, or shortness of breath. In a recent survey of 1,725 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, 95% of the respondents indicated they experienced any one of these symptoms up to a year before being diagnosed, experiencing up to 20-30 episodes of symptoms each month. Although many of these symptoms can be attributed to other diseases, we are now aware that ovarian cancer should be considered in cases when other diseases cannot be identified as the cause.


As there is no specific test to diagnose this disease, ovarian cancer may often be diagnosed through a combination of exams and tests including the pelvic exam, ultrasound, blood tests, and surgical biopsy. Based on the results of these tests, treatment may involve further surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Following treatment, those with a history of this disease will require life-long follow up with periodic surveillance to identify recurrence. Survivors are encouraged to report any new symptoms to their provider, ensuring that every one of them is thoroughly investigated.

If you have any concerns, have experienced any of these symptoms, or have a family history of breast, ovarian, colon, or prostate cancer, it's important to schedule a visit with your health care provider for evaluation. Early detection is vital in order to receive the best possible treatment.


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