As we observe September as the Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, there are a few things about this silent killer which all the women out there must know.
Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries, the female reproductive organ, but it often goes undetected as it has no symptoms in the early stages. The early symptoms come camouflaged as stomach disorders and this is the reason due to which these get ignored. That is until it has spread to the pelvis and abdominal region, by which time it often turns fatal. But as it is with all other types of cancers, ovarian cancer too can be treated successfully, if detected in time.
The main difference between ovarian cancer and digestive disorders is the persistence and gradual worsening of symptoms. While most digestive disorders have fluctuating symptoms, those of ovarian cancer are more constant and steadily advancing.
The symptoms include bloating of stomach, difficulty in eating, feeling full quickly, pelvic or abdominal pain, need to pass urine more urgently or frequently and changes in bowel habits, such as constipation. As the cancer advances a person starts losing weight quickly.
The worrisome part is every woman is at risk for ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is responsible for as many as 140,000 deaths annually the world over. In India, the incidence is higher in Delhi and Mumbai as compared to Chennai and Bangalore. One must also know that only in 10 per cent cases the cause is genetic, the causes behind the rest are yet not documented.
Further, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer. The PAP smear test which is often confused to be a screening test for any gynecological cancer, is actually not so. PAP smear detects pre-cancerous cells in case of cervical cancer only.
All this means it is only awareness of symptoms and careful monitoring of the symptoms that is most important for early detection and successful treatment of ovarian cancer.
Having said this, certain women are more at risk of ovarian cancer. The Risk factors are:
Though ovarian cancer can occur at any age, it is most common in women aged between 50 to 60 years.
2) Inherited gene mutation.
A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. The genes known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer are called breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1) and breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2). The gene mutations that cause Lynch syndrome, which is associated with colon cancer, also increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.
3) Estrogen hormone replacement therapy, especially with long-term use and in large doses.
4) Age when menstruation started and ended.
If a woman began menstruating before the age of 12 years or underwent menopause after age 52, or both, the risk of ovarian cancer may be higher.
5) Never being pregnant.
Women who have never given birth or have trouble getting pregnant are more at risk.
6) Fertility treatment.
Those who undergo various fertility treatments are more susceptible to ovarian cancer. Researchers have found that prolonged use of certain fertility drugs like clomiphene citrate (Clomid®) may increase the risk for developing ovarian tumors. The risk is more in women who do not get pregnant even while on this drug.
As with other cancers, smoking and consuming tobacco products increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
8) Use of an intrauterine device.
Although intra-uterine devices are the most effective types of reversible birth control methods, these are a potent risk factor for ovarian cancer.
9) Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
In PCOS a woman’s levels of the sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, go out of balance leading to growth of ovarian cysts (benign masses on the ovaries). Women who have PCOS are at heightened risk of ovarian cancer.