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Green ribbon honoring ovarian cancer.

Don't miss the early warning signs of ovarian cancer

While ovarian cancer accounts for only 2.5 percent of cancers in women, it is the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related death. That is because it is difficult to detect and usually diagnosed at later stages.  

“Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect because we don’t have a good screening test for it and the symptoms are super vague,” says Tia Guster, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Piedmont. “The prevalence of ovarian cancer in the general population is pretty low, which is good because it’s hard to detect and when it is detected, it’s usually at stage III or IV, when it is harder to treat. If we had a test that could detect ovarian cancer in stage I, patients would have a 90 percent survival rate.”

Research has not found any definitive ways to prevent ovarian cancer, so it’s important to know the risk factors and early symptoms.

Ovarian cancer risk factors

The following factors can increase your risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Age: It is most common in women ages 55 to 64

  • Current health conditions: Including polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and obesity

  • Family history of the disease: Either your mother, grandmother, sister or daughter has had ovarian cancer

  • Reproductive health: Starting your period before age 12, going through menopause after age 50 and/or taking hormone replacement therapy

  • Fertility: History of infertility, never giving birth and/or never taking oral contraceptives

  • Genetic factors: Having the breast cancer gene 1 (BRCA1), breast cancer gene 2 (BRCA2) or Lynch Syndrome, an inherited syndrome also called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)

  • Personal history of cancer: Including breast cancer, uterine cancer or colorectal cancer

The following factors may reduce your risk of ovarian cancer:

  • Oral contraceptives: All medications can have side effects, so talk to your doctor to see if birth control pills are right for you

  • Reproductive factors: Pregnancy and breastfeeding  

  • Surgical procedures: Including surgical removal of the ovaries or fallopian tubes, hysterectomy or tubal ligation (there are risks associated with all surgeries; if you are at high risk for ovarian cancer, talk to your doctor to see if this is right for you)

Keep in mind, just because you have one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean you will develop ovarian cancer. Most women don’t get ovarian cancer and some women who develop the disease don’t have any risk factors.

Early warning signs of ovarian cancer you shouldn’t ignore

Ovarian cancer has symptoms, but they can seem minor or mimic other conditions. Dr. Guster stresses the importance of knowing and listening to your body. If something doesn’t seem right or if symptoms occur more than 12 times in a month, talk to your gynecologist. Warning signs include:

  • Abdominal and pelvic pain

  • Bloating

  • Changes in urinary urge or frequency

  • Difficulty eating

  • Early satiety – getting full early when eating

  • Increased abdominal size

“It’s your body,” says Dr. Guster. “If my patient doesn’t think something is right, I don’t think something’s right. Don’t be quieted. If someone listens to your story and you’re not satisfied with the results, keep looking.” 

Learn more about women’s health from Piedmont experts.

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