Ovarian Cancer - Questions & Answers

What should people know about ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor that begins in one or both of the ovaries, the female reproductive organs that produce and release a monthly ovum or egg. One in every 55 women develop ovarian cancer. More than 80% of the cases are diagnosed in an advanced stage when treatment may be less successful. While the prognosis for early stage ovarian cancer is excellent, early stage diagnosis is made more difficult because there is no general population screening test for ovarian cancer at this time.

Who gets ovarian cancer?

Any female can develop ovarian cancer, but it is most likely to occur in women between the ages of 65 and 84. Ovarian cancer accounts for 10% of all cancers among women. In New York State, approximately1,700 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer annually and more than 1,000 die from the disease – making it the fifth most common cause of cancer death among New York women. Women of all races and ethnic backgrounds develop ovarian cancer.

What causes ovarian cancer?

The exact causes of ovarian cancer are not known. However, there are some factors that appear to increase the chance of developing this disease. The likelihood of being diagnosed increases with age. Under a number of conditions women face a higher than average risk of developing ovarian cancer. These include:

  • Women over 40;
  • Women who have never been pregnant;
  • Women who are identified with a specific mutation in a gene called BRCA1 or BRCA2;
  • Women whose mothers, sisters or daughters have had ovarian cancer; although most affected women do not have a family history of ovarian cancer,
  • Women with a history of ovarian, breast, uterine or colon cancer on either side of her family; and
  • Women with a personal history of breast, uterine or colon cancer.

What can be done to reduce my chances of getting ovarian cancer?

Pregnancy and childbirth decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. All women, regardless of their risk, should have regular recto-vaginal pelvic examinations throughout their lives. Women should talk to their doctors about oral contraceptives, as numerous studies suggest that birth control pills, when taken for five years or more, reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by as much as 60%. Some experts believe that risk can be reduced by not using a powder containing talc around the vaginal area and consuming a low-fat diet. Women considered at high risk due to personal or family history should consult regularly with a specialist and discuss strategies for prevention and early detection. Women at high risk who have completed their families may consider removal of the ovaries as a preventive measure.

What are the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Some symptoms may include feeling bloated; abdominal, pelvic or back pain; a feeling of fullness even after a light meal; excessive fatigue or tiredness; and frequent and/or urgent urination. One reason that ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed at a late stage is that the symptoms can be vague and sometimes ignored or overlooked by women and their health care providers. It is important that a woman see a doctor if she has these symptoms for a month or more.

How is ovarian cancer treated?

An aggressive approach to disease management can maximize chances for survival. Once a diagnosis is made, consultation with a gynecologic oncologist is highly recommended. For most patients, surgery to remove all of the visible tumor is required, a process known as debulking. This surgery generally is followed by a course of chemotherapy.

Is there a screening test?

High-risk women should talk to their doctors about screening for ovarian cancer. Ovaries can be examined with a pelvic ultrasound and a substance called a biomarker (CA-125) can be measured in a blood sample. However, other non-cancerous conditions also can cause an increase in CA-125, so a cancer diagnosis cannot be made from this test alone. Unfortunately, there is not yet a general screening test for women at average risk. A great deal of research is underway to identify a test for widespread use.